So some of the attention has shifted to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a substantially less ambitious, though still worthy, reform. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) just announced that he opposes the John Lewis measure, but it’s at least conceivable that some GOP senators might back it.
Unfortunately, even if it does have a chance of passing, it isn’t nearly enough.
The For the People Act, called S. 1 in the Senate, contains a long list of requirements for the way states conduct elections. It mandates automatic voter registration, ample early voting and easy ways for voters to identify themselves, as well as attacking gerrymandering.
In short, S. 1 goes directly after the kind of voter suppression laws and anti-majoritarian tactics Republicans are frantically pursuing at the state level.
The John Lewis Act, meanwhile, seeks to revive the original Voting Rights Act, which required “preclearance” of changes to voting laws by states and localities with a history of discriminatory practices. Those had to receive permission to change voting laws from the Justice Department, which would examine whether the changes would disenfranchise minority groups.
But that section of the Voting Rights Act was eviscerated in 2013 by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The John Lewis Act would restore those types of protections.
While some provisions in the For the People Act don’t have any direct relationship to what the John Lewis Act would create — for instance, requiring nonpartisan commissions for redistricting — some of what the former seeks to accomplish could indeed be brought about by the latter.
For instance, one voter suppression tool Republicans have used is to hatch ever more ingenious ways that make it harder to vote, disproportionately targeted at African Americans and other Democratic-aligned constituencies. The notorious new Georgia law does this.
While the For the People Act would make that harder for GOP legislatures in numerous ways, the John Lewis Act also might have an impact. If the Justice Department assessed that a proposed change along those lines would disproportionately harm minority voters, it might disallow it.
But the John Lewis Act does not do all kinds of things that the more ambitious measure does. It wouldn’t undo already-passed voter suppression laws, it wouldn’t clamp down on extreme gerrymanders, and it wouldn’t make voter registration easier in numerous ways.
Still, the John Lewis Act could stop a good deal of what state-level Republicans have planned for the future of voter suppression — which is why Republicans oppose this measure, too. As Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) recently put it, the John Lewis Act is “just as big of a problem.”
And that’s why the John Lewis Act is also likely doomed in the Senate.
Now that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) came out against the For the People Act and confirmed he’ll never vote to weaken the filibuster, some have suggested an alternate path. Because Manchin does support the John Lewis Act along with one GOP senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one possibility might be to add pieces of the former to the latter — say, limits on gerrymandering — to get Manchin to support more beefed-up protections.
But a Senate Democratic aide tells us there’s cause for doubt about this strategy. Ultimately, everything traces back to Manchin’s opposition to ending the filibuster.
As the aide notes, the view of some inside the Democratic caucus is that no single major provision of the For The People Act can get 60 votes in the Senate. And neither can the John Lewis Act in its current form.
And so, if you did add limits on gerrymanders to the John Lewis Act, it would fall well short of 60 Senate votes. And then you’d need Manchin to be willing to end the filibuster. Which he says he’ll never do.
To illustrate the point, the aide noted that, when the Senate filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally concluded, Minority Leader Everett Dirksen quoted Victor Hugo saying: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.”
“The question now is whether Senator Manchin believes the time for acting has come,” the aide told us. As long as the answer is no, Republicans can kill either bill.
In state after state, Republicans are passing sweeping voter suppression laws, and they’re gearing up for gerrymanders that they openly anticipate will help capture the House in 2020. In Congress, the filibuster allows them to kill any and all attempts to make the system fair to all voters. And the conservative Supreme Court supermajority will help them continue undermining voting rights.
Why would Republicans ever do anything to change any of that?