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Transcript: Voting Rights Legislation

This is a transcript for podcast episode 18, aired on March 21, 2021

Last week on this podcast, I talked about how our voting rights are being chipped away in state legislator houses across the nation. I cited a study by the Brennan Center for Justice that’s been reported upon by many news organizations - that over 250 bills across 43 states are designed to further restrict voting rights. The reasons for these bills are being justified under the umbrella of “Protecting voting integrity.” This is a thinly veiled attempt to lend credence to the “stop the steal” campaign waged by President Trump and his supporters. Debunked and unfounded as it is, this justification is being used to reduce voting hours and polling places, implement stringent voter ID laws and act on other ill-founded impulses to target the right to vote, particularly among minority populations.

This week, I’d like to talk about a related topic; H.R.1, also known as the “For the People Act,” and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

First, I’d like to clear up confusion on these acts of Congress. I feel compelled to do this because I personally was confused into thinking that the “For the People” Act and the “John Lewis Voting Rights” Act are one in the same. They are not. They both share the goal of extending and solidifying voting rights, but they are different.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act was proposed and passed in the 116th Congressional House of Representatives. It is an extension of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, but brought up to date for our modern society. It required updating because major portions of the original Voting Rights Act was struck down in a Supreme Court decision in 2013 - known as Shelby County versus Holder. The Supreme Court did not strike down the act itself as unconstitutional; on the contrary, the Court understood that Congress has constitutional authority to pass laws that affect voting rights. For reference, see Article 1 Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution as well as Section 2 of the 15th Amendment.

So the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act without striking down that act itself. Their main objection was that the voting challenges that existed in 1965 no longer applied to the current date, 2013. If teeth were to be re-inserted into the Voting Rights Act, it needed to be updated to reflect modern day voting rights issues.

The problem is that major provisions of the Act were struck down but without any way of remediating modern day voting rights issues. Almost immediately, states began advancing legislation to restrict voting rights. The legislation arguably targeted at minorities, especially Black citizens. So work began almost immediately to update the Voting Rights Act to bring it back into alignment with modern day realities.

It took a few years, but finally in 2019, the 116th Congress of the U.S. House of Representatives emerged with House Resolution 4, or H.R.4, which addressed the issues cited by the Supreme Court, effectively putting the teeth back into the original Voting Rights Act.

The bill was originally titled the “Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019,” but it was renamed in honor of the late Georgia Representative John Lewis, becoming the “John Lewis Voting Rights Act.” The act was introduced to the U.S. Senate under its new name by Senator Patrick Leahy. Senator Mitch McConnell, true to his informal “Grim-Reaper-of-the-Senate” title, promptly ignored it. Because the 116th Congress subsequently adjourned, the bill died with it. It’s expected to be resurrected in the new 117th congress, but as of this date, March 21 2021, it has yet to happen.

As I mentioned earlier, the “John Lewis Voting Rights Act” is often confused with the “For the People Act.” These are two different Acts, though they share the same ultimate goal. Whereas the John Lewis Act focused on the reestablishment of the original Voting Rights act of 1965, the “We the People” Act - otherwise known as H.R.1 - focuses more on the mechanics of voting, along with the way in which political campaigns are waged as well as ethics. It’s basically an attempt to - if I may be so bold as to use a trite phrase - “Drain the Swamp” of bad political behavior.

H.R.1 comes in at just under 800 pages, which may seem like a daunting read, but keep in mind that congressional bills are typed in fairly large font, double-spaced and generally take up only a half column width. Were it packed into a paperback Stephen King novel, it would come in around 380 pages, by my estimate. It’s still a pretty big read, but if you’ve ever read a Stephen King book, 380 pages barely gets you started.

Anyway, I digress.

The For the People Act goes a lot further than the Voting Rights Act, and therefore is not likely to get through the Senate during this term. Some of the provisions in For the People Act include:

  • Provisions on campaign finance reform that includes, among other things, a government-sponsored matching funds program, whereas candidates can acquire $6 for ever $1 in small dollar private donations. The objective presumably is to remove or reduce the effect of big money pouring into campaigns from large corporations with interests that do not serve the public’s needs.

  • Protections for the voting rights of felons

  • Support for voting by mail

  • Paper ballots

  • Limits on gerrymandering

  • Implementation of new ethical rules for holders of federal office

The For the People Act represents a sweeping change in voting dynamics in this country, and its ramifications will be felt mostly by Republicans. At least, that’s what many Republicans are saying. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was recently recorded secretly as saying that the only objective Democrats have for pursuing the For the People Act was to “ensure that [they] can never again lose another election, that they will win and maintain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and of the state legislatures for the next century.”

Of course, a guy like me has to ask why he’s so afraid of this legislation. My guess is that it would affect both Republicans and Democrats to some degree; however, the overall benefit would go to the people. It would severely reduce the amount of money-chasing that candidates are required to do. For example, it is well known that most politicians in Washington begin worrying about the next election as soon as the results from the current election are counted. They act on this fear by spending at least half of their time in Washington trying to raise money for the next election. It basically means that of the $175,000 annual salary they receive from you and me in the form of our tax dollars, they only spend half their time doing the peoples’ business. The rest of the time they’re dialing for dollars and asking for donations from the really big donors, such as big pharma, medical insurance, military hardware manufacturers, and so on. If you’re curious to see more details on where the money is coming from and where is going, lookup You might be surprised and disappointed. But no matter your emotion, you’ll be better informed.

Outgoing Senator Roy Blunt recently spoke on the floor of the Senate, voicing his concerns over the For the People Act, which in the Senate is known as “S.1.” He not only complained about the length of the bill - the Senate version is over 800 pages - but he specifically pointed out several problem areas he perceives as damaging our elections.

Here are his opening remarks on the Senate floor:

I want to talk today, Mr. President, about a draft I just received, a bill we're actually going to have a hearing on next week—S.1, the so-called For the People Act. This bill is a companion act to the Senate version of H.R.1. I actually think it's even longer than H.R. 1, which I would have thought impossible. It's over 800 pages. I think they’ll be introducing the final version in the next day or so. And that's a good thing, since we're supposed to have a hearing on it in the middle of next week. It packs a lot of what I consider bad changes relating to election administration, campaign finance, redistricting, and so much more into those 800 pages. But there's a lot of space there to pack things in. It'd take a lot more time than I've got today to talk about all the things in the bill that I have concerns about.
But I'd say to start with, this idea that one-size-fits-all, this federal takeover of elections, can't be in the interest of voters in our country. It would force a single, and I believe a partisan, view of elections and how they should be run in 10,000 different jurisdictions in the country. I don't know how you do that. I don't know how you take 10,000 jurisdictions and try, at the Washington, D.C. level, in legislation to determine changes like how they would register voters—every state under this bill would do it exactly the same way, which voting systems they would use, how they'd handle early voting and absentee ballots—no matter how long they'd been doing it one way that worked for voters in their state, and how they maintain their voter lists—whether you go in and verify whether people on the voter list were still there. We used to think that was a critically important protection in the election system, that you knew that the voters that had registered to vote in a jurisdiction actually were still in that jurisdiction. It was actually, in every state, a bragging point of responsible election administration. That would largely go away in this bill.

Senator Blunt went on to point out some more specific criteria, such as:

  • Potential problems with ballot harvesting; that is, where people collect the ballots for others, and then conveniently lose the ballots they think will not support their desired candidate. Senator Blunt actually cited a recent case in North Carolina where that action took place, and it actually failed - at least initially - to seat a Democrat.

  • Issues with allowing felons to vote in federal elections, but not in state elections, which would complicate ballot printing.

  • Voting security issues can come up when all voting processes are centralized into one system. Essentially, when you have each state - and each jurisdiction - conducting its own elections, it becomes difficult to attack every one of them because of the sheer number of attack vectors. However, if you roll everything up into one big homogeneous system, you present a single attack vector for nefarious agents who wish to interfere in our national elections.

  • Federal matching dollars 6-to-1 for small dollar donations represents a huge expenditure, whereas that federal money could be put to better use elsewhere.

  • District boundaries would be under jurisdiction of the federal government, whereas states are currently doing it themselves. It is, in short, a power grab by Democrats.

This morning on Meet the Press, Senator Blunt expressed a willingness to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but when talking, he immediately pivoted into bringing up the For the People Act, citing many of the points I just mentioned.

So it would seem that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act stands a pretty good chance of passing in the Senate, but the For the People Act is not likely to get through.

One final note regarding the For the People Act: The Senate has this tool called the “Filibuster,” which allows a minority within the senate to gum up the works and effectively block passage of any bills. It accomplishes this task by blocking any effort to stop debating a bill, ad infinitum. There are two ways that Democrats can get around this issue: One is to get rid of the filibuster altogether. Setting aside the passage of “For the People” for the moment, there are a lot of people that support this idea. The problem is that it would require a simple majority of the senate to vote for it; for the purpose of passing the For the People Act, most Democrats would love to do this, but not all Democrats, so ending the filibuster seems a distant hope at this time. The other method involves something called “cloture,” which says that a debate can be forced into ending if 60 or more Senators approve. This would mean that all Democrats and 10 Republicans would need to support ending the filibuster debate. Again, this is not likely to happen.

As the drama unfolds, we’ll just have to keep tuned to the news over the coming days and weeks and see what happens.

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