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‘Time is running out’: can Congress pass a voting rights bill after months of failure?

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Allison Bailey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Allison Bailey/Rex/Shutterstock

The president made it a key plank of his election campaign, but nearly a year on, voting rights reform remains elusive


For years, Helen Butler has been on a mission to increase voter turnout, especially among Black voters, in Georgia and across the south. She’s used to the skepticism. People she meets wonder why they should bother, because their vote won’t matter. No matter who’s in office, longstanding problems won’t get solved.

More recently, she’s pushed back on efforts by Georgia Republicans to make it harder to vote. She’s seen things like overly aggressive efforts to remove people from the voter rolls and the rapid consolidation of polling places.

Last year, she listened as Joe Biden promised he would protect the right to vote if he was elected president. “One thing the Senate and the president can do right away is pass the bill to restore the Voting Rights Act … it’s one of the first things I’ll do as president if elected. We can’t let the fundamental right to vote be denied,” he said in July last year.

Months later, Butler and other organizers had a breakthrough that had been years in the making. After years of investing in voter mobilization, turnout among Black voters surged in the November election, helping Joe Biden win a state long seen as a Republican stronghold. In January, Black voters came out again and helped Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win two upset Senate bids, giving Democrats control of the US Senate.

On the night he was elected president, Biden called out the Black voters who helped him capture the presidency, saying: “When this campaign was at its lowest – the African American community stood up again for me. They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.”

And so, after Biden was inaugurated, Butler and many others expected that voting rights would be one of the first things the president and Democrats addressed.

Instead, during the president’s first year in office, Butler has watched with dismay as Biden and Democrats have failed to pass any voting rights legislation. Meanwhile, Republicans in Georgia passed sweeping new voting restrictions, one of several places across the country that made it harder to vote.

“It is disheartening, I can tell you, out of all the work we’ve put in to have fair elections, to get people engaged, and to have the Senate that will not act to protect the most sacred right, the right to vote, is unheard of,” Butler said.

“[It] makes voters say ‘Did I vote for the right people? … you haven’t fought for me. Why should I fight to keep you in office in 2022?’”

Democrats have been stymied by the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation. Republicans have used the rule to successfully block voting rights bills on four different occasions this year.

Democrats need the support of all 50 senators to get rid of the rule, and two Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are strongly opposed. Both senators have argued the rule forges bipartisan compromise, but many believe Republicans have weaponized it into a tool of obstruction and that protecting voting rights is an urgent enough issue to justify getting rid of the rule.

There was already simmering frustration from voting advocateswho believe Biden has not taken strong action, especially as several states enacted sweeping new voting restrictions.

That frustration is now turning into escalating alarm that time is running out to pass meaningful voting rights legislation ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, amid a crammed congressional agenda that is already backed up for December. More than 200 civic action groups urged Congress on Thursday to postpone its December recess until it passes voting rights legislation.

“All of the experts and lawyers are telling us the same thing: time is running out. We are not out of time yet, but we are running out of runway to get this bill passed, get it signed into law, be able to clear any legal challenges and actually get it implemented for 2022,” said Tiffany Muller, the president and executive director of End Citizens United/Let America Vote, which strongly supports both bills.

Senate Democrats are searching for a path forward around the filibuster, but appear increasingly likely to finish Biden’s first year in office without passing a voting rights bill.

“If Congress doesn’t get this done by the end of the year, it’s hard to see why the political will will be there later. What will have changed in January in February?” said Ezra Levin, a co-executive director of Indivisible, a grassroots groups that supports the bills.

Distress is surging as Republicans in several states, including Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio, have passed distorted electoral maps that will lock in Republican advantages in Congress for the next decade.

Related: These maps show how Republicans are blatantly rigging elections

Many of the new districts blunt the voting power of rapid population growth among Hispanic, Asian and Black voters, who tend to back Democrats, by grouping them into non-competitive districts.

The voting rights bills stalled in Congress contain provisions that would limit, and in some cases halt, that kind of severe distortion, called gerrymandering. The bills would also stop many of the new restrictions states have passed this year and guard against similar restrictions in the future.

Even if Democrats somehow find a way to pass a voting rights bill, they would face an uphill battle in trying to block already-enacted maps – as primary elections for those congressional seats up for grabs in next year’s midterms.

The candidate filing period has already opened in Texas and is set to begin soon in North Carolina, noted Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, making courts more reluctant to step in. Congress has made things “messier”, Li said, because it is harder to challenge maps after they go into effect and the electoral calendar is under way.

“If the goal is to fix maps for 2022 … it’s becoming dangerously late in the game,” he said.

Several provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act, one of the voting rights bills in limbo on Capitol Hill, also would require some states to make significant changes to the way elections are run.

It requires states to offer same-day registration (not currently offered in 30 states), online voter registration (not offered in eight states). Election officials need time to implement those changes, and it will be harder on the eve of elections.

If the legislation were enacted, states could probably pivot to implement changes and the more time they have , the smoother that will be, said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the Democracy Fund, who specializes in election administration.

“I think that it’s doable. But if we want to ensure that it’s done correctly and well, it’s going to take some time and definitely some resources. So the sands in the hourglass are slipping away,” she said.

As the window to pass legislation closes, some voting rights activists say the White House is too passive.

After Biden made his strongest signal to date of altering the filibuster, activists had high hopes for getting details on strategy during a 15 November meeting with Kamala Harris, whom Biden asked to lead the White House’s voting rights effort.

Instead, Harris gave six minutes of remarks and then left staff to answer questions. Some attendees were upset and one, Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told the Guardian of the meeting: “Nothing substantive came out of it, it was very frustrating.”

Like Butler, Albright said he was concerned about the message to Black voters who turned out and helped elect Biden and Harris.

“You’ve got people in the White House and friends of the White House that believe ‘if we get it done, people don’t care how long it took.’ I think that they’re dangerously mistaken,” he said. “People remember that you prioritized everything else above our interests.”

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