Last week, House Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi approved the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was intended to restore the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 to its former civil rights glory. The vote fell along partisan lines with all 212 House Republicans voting against it. That was sadly predictable. For years now, states with majority Republican legislatures have been whittling away at this most basic and important of rights for the most obvious of reasons: Reducing turnout at the polls of low-income, often minority, voters benefits their candidates.
And the U.S. Supreme Court has, through a pair of adverse rulings, given them that opportunity. Most notably under the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, certain states no longer require federal preclearance to make changes to their voting laws. And so, the nation has slipped toward a return to the Jim Crow era, not with any measure so overt as a literacy test or a poll tax, but through incremental changes — a reduction in polling hours here, a hurdle to absentee ballots or a burdensome ID requirement there — to discourage turnout.
Our preference has always been for Congress to approve the For The People Act, sponsored by Maryland’s own Rep. John Sarbanes, which not only protects voting rights but includes serious election law reforms that would, for example, make political candidates less dependent on special interest money to fuel their campaigns. But Senate Republicans weren’t having any of that and neither was Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. That leaves the more basic proposal, H.R. 4, which is also certain to be strongly opposed by the GOP. Opponents will use the most powerful tool in their arsenal, the Senate filibuster. Thus, the only way that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act can make it out of that chamber is for united Democrats, with President Joe Biden’s strong support, to either suspend or amend the filibuster rule so that something close to the bare minimum majority 50 votes will be sufficient for the bill’s passage.
Senator Manchin has said in the past that he doesn’t think voting rights reforms should be approved on a partisan basis. In an ideal world, we would agree. There was a time when the Voting Rights Act was renewed (pre-Shelby County) with bipartisan majorities. But exactly what does he — or any other weak-kneed Democrat — think is happening in all those state houses where Republicans are happily bending voting rules in their favor? Oh, they are smart enough not to explain their efforts as a power grab, but any reasonable analysis would find their motives obvious. Excuses, like how they seek to prevent voter fraud, don’t stand up to scrutiny. The last presidential election proved that repeatedly as challenges by Donald Trump and his supporters were laughed out of courtrooms, with some of the perpetrators now facing federal sanctions over a bogus election fraud lawsuit in Michigan.
More Americans should be outraged about this. Polls show, unsurprisingly, a partisan divide, with Democrats worried about this loss of rights and Republicans far more concerned about people voting who are not eligible. Such is the power of misinformation and party identification that can produce a fiasco like the Jan. 6 insurrection built on the Big Lie. Still, missing from the Democratic side is the passion and moral imperative that the late John Lewis, the 17-term Georgia congressman and civil rights leader of Edmund Pettus Bridge fame, would have brought to the forefront. This is not the moment to respect Senate courtesies. This is the moment to expect a nation, where so many claim that the era of racial discrimination is over, to stop tolerating such blatantly discriminatory behavior. This isn’t about boosting the chances for Democratic candidates, this is about something far more important — preserving the basic rights of all Americans to cast a ballot.
And so we call on President Biden and his fellow elected Democrats to do more than merely give lip service to voting rights. This is where they ought to take a stand. Infrastructure is great, and we support additional spending. But this is about the heart and soul of this nation. At least one Senate Republican, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, supports the measure and has even put her name on it. Others of her party hide behind the false claim that the legislation is a “federal grab” of election law, which is exactly the sort of phony criticism one might have expected from civil rights opponents of the 1960s. Shame on them. But shame also on Democrats who know better. As Mr. Lewis said, this is the time to make “good trouble” like protesters at Saturday’s 58th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The struggle for social justice goes on.
This editorial first appeared in The Baltimore Sun on Aug. 30.