Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set the stage for a showdown this month over voting rights — pledging to muscle through sweeping new federal legislation aimed at counteracting moves by Republicans in state capitols to restrict access to the ballot.
But to do so, he must accomplish a near-impossible feat and persuade reluctant senators in his own caucus to change the chamber’s rules to bypass the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome Republicans’ repeated blockades of the bills.
Despite supporting voting measures, two of his fellow Democrats — Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — have defended the so-called filibuster, which requires 10 Republicans to support advancing legislation in an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.
Time is running out for Democrats, who are racing to establish new ground rules for voting ahead of this year’s midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress.
Republican-controlled legislatures, particularly in battleground states that saw increased turnout and Democratic victories in 2020, already have enacted a raft of new laws that limit absentee balloting, impose additional ID requirements and otherwise create new hurdles to voting. And more restrictions are likely to pass in upcoming state legislative sessions.
Schumer has set a deadline of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17 to vote on rule changes if Republicans once again block consideration of the bills.
The looming confrontation comes as some GOP leaders have begun to voice support for a more modest approach: updating an arcane 19th century law, known as the Electoral Count Act, that details how Congress counts Electoral College votes from each state.
Schumer has insisted that an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act is no substitute for bigger electoral reforms. And President Joe Biden is expected to make the case for broader federal voting rights legislation when he travels to Georgia today, a key political battleground and a cradle of the country’s civil rights movement.
As the Senate gears up to tackle voting rights, here’s a look at the various legislative proposals and what they would do:
The Freedom to Vote Act: This bill from a group of Democrats, including Manchin and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, sweeps into one place broad changes to election and campaign-finance laws. The goal is to set baseline rules that all states must follow in administering federal elections.
Among its provisions: Making Election Day a public holiday, mandating same-day voter registration, guaranteeing that all voters can request mail-in ballots and restoring the federal voting rights for ex-felons once they are released from prison.
It also seeks to safeguard against partisan takeovers of election administration, ban partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and mandate disclosure of donors to deep-pocketed “dark money” groups that seek to influence elections.
All 50 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate back the bill; Republicans have rejected it as federal overreach.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act: The bill, named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon who died in 2020, would restore the power of the federal government to oversee state voting laws to prevent discrimination against minority voters.
A 2013 Supreme Court decision gutted a central pillar of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required nine states and parts of others with a history of racial discrimination to win approval or “preclearance” from the US Justice Department or a federal judge before changing their electoral policies.
Soon after the ruling, some states began enacting new voting laws, such as adding stricter voter identification requirements. And in the last year, Republican-led states have moved quickly to change more laws, spurred on by former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that widespread voter fraud led to his 2020 loss.
The John Lewis bill would change the formula used to determine which states need to obtain “preclearance” for their voting rules. It would extend preclearance coverage to states that have incurred multiple voting rights violations during the previous 25 years — an attempt to address the Supreme Court majority’s concern that some states were being unfairly punished for decades-old misdeeds under the old law, rather than current discriminatory practices.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the only Senate Republican to sign on to the bill.
Read the full story and more about the bills here.