WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate Democrats joined with dozens of state legislators at a rally outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, demanding that the Senate skip August recess and pass critical voting rights legislation in reaction to Republican-led states that have adopted restrictive voting laws.
Dozens of legislators from Montana, North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas, among others, traveled to Washington to pressure the Senate to quickly pass S.1, known as the “For the People Act.”
The nearly 800-page package would undo dozens of restrictive voting laws already in place and faces major hurdles gaining enough GOP support to advance in the Senate.
The state lawmakers, along with half a dozen U.S. Senate Democrats, also called for an end to the filibuster in order to pass S.1 before the Senate leaves for recess.
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said during the rally that the Senate is working to quickly craft a new, bipartisan elections bill. Klobuchar said that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a key moderate, was heavily involved in crafting the legislation.
Klobuchar recently held a field hearing in Georgia, which has become known as “ground zero” for Democrats in their fight to protect voting rights.
“These things are done to design to make sure that people don’t vote,” Klobuchar said, referring to the restrictive voting laws passed in Georgia. “That, my friends, is why we need national bedrock, basic standards for voting in this country.”
From Montana, three members of the House Democratic caucus arrived at the Capitol to advocate for passage of federal legislation protecting Montanans’ right to vote, according to a news release from the Montana House Democrats. From the 2021 session, legislation that changed the way voting takes place in Montana has ended up in court.
“Voting is a fundamental right in our democracy, and every Montanan who is eligible to vote should be able to vote without barriers,” said Reps. Mary Caferro, Mary Ann Dunwell, and Tom France in a joint statement. “At a time when Montana Republicans are enacting legislation blocking folks from making their voice heard on Election Day, it is more important than ever to keep our elections free, fair and secure.”
Georgia state legislators, along with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat, stressed their state’s role in not only delivering Democrats the presidency for President Joe Biden, but also two Senate seats, giving Democrats a razor-thin majority with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes.
“This is a defining moment in America,” said Warnock, who was also present at the field hearing. “This is really very simple. Some people don’t want some people to vote.”
With the passage of Georgia’s new voting law, SB 202, Georgia state Democrats have lobbied for congressional Democrats to pass the “For the People Act,” arguing that they cannot continue to “out organize the subversion of democracy,” Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen said.
“Let me be clear, we cannot out organize power hungry Republicans who are currently trying to steal power away from our local election boards,” she said. “I would also be clear on this that it is not the job of Black and brown organizers and Black and brown voters to carry the weight of saving our democracy on their shoulders.”
Nguyen said that Georgia gave Democrats the majority in the Senate, and now it was Congress’ job to pass federal voting protections, since Georgia’s rights are under attack. The new voting bill eliminates drop boxes and makes it a crime to pass out water and snacks to voters waiting in lines, among other provisions.
A flood of new laws in Montana, elsewhere
This year alone, 18 states have passed 30 restrictive voting laws that range from making mail-in voting harder to enacting voter ID requirements and purging voter rolls, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. And more than 400 bills in 49 states with restrictive voting provisions have been introduced in the 2021 legislative sessions.
In their news release, the Montana House Democrats said the 2021 legislature has jeopardized voting rights with legislation eliminating election day voter registration (HB 176), delaying newly-eligible voters access to their ballots (HB 506), upending Montana’s established voter identification laws (SB 169), and harming the ability of voters in rural and reservation communities to cast their ballots (HB 530).
“Gov. Greg Gianforte signed every piece of this unprecedented attack on voting rights into law, and all are being challenged in court,” the Democrats said in the news release.
Republicans have argued the bills are necessary to ensure the security of the vote.
Reps. Caferro, Dunwell, and France planned to meet Tuesday with members of Montana’s Congressional delegation to encourage their support for passage of the “For the People Act” (H.R.1/S.1). Montana House Democrats will also join their colleagues in a rally at the U.S. Capitol in support of voting rights, the news release said.
The flurry of state Republican legislators introducing and passing these laws began after Biden won the 2020 presidential election, and former President Donald Trump continued to perpetuate the falsehood that the election was stolen from him. Democrats refer to that as the “Big Lie,” and have criticized Republicans for going along with that falsehood by introducing restrictive voting laws.
The House passed its version of S. 1, known as H.R. 1, but Republicans blocked the bill in the Senate.
A push to lose the filibuster
The architect of H.R. 1, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) along with U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, also a Maryland Democrat, at the rally called for the end of the filibuster and the passage of “For the People Act.”
“We know that voter suppression and election subversion suppress and suffocate and diminish the voice of the people in the country,” Sarbanes said. “That’s what the ‘For the People Act’ is trying to address, to lift up the voice of the people to fight back against voter suppression and election subversion, to fight back against the influence big money has in our politics.”
North Carolina state Sen. Natalie Murdock said that federal voting protections are needed, and pointed out that her state in its constitution still refers to a literacy test needed for voting.
She added that this is not the first time Black voters have had to fight for their basic right to vote.
“Voter suppression is not as flagrant as it was when my ancestors fought,” she said. “The fire hoses and attack dogs have been replaced with complex and oppressive laws fueled by the ‘Big Lie’ that not only make it harder to vote, but harder for those votes to count.”
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said the bills that he’s seeing in his state seek to depress voting among voters of color.
“These voter suppression bills, at their core, are about white supremacy,” he said. “That’s one of the many reasons we have to stop them, or override them with federal legislation.”
Casey added that he’s determined to pass voting rights legislation, “even if that means changing the Senate rule on 60 votes.”
Any voting rights legislation will face an uphill battle in the Senate.
Democrats have been unable to get the 10 Republican votes needed to advance the bill to debate and Senate Democrats Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are not on board with eliminating the filibuster, even to pass voting rights legislation.
Civil rights advocates have continued to press Manchin and Sinema nonetheless.
John Lewis bill
The state legislators at the rally also urged the quick passage of the “John Lewis Voting Rights and Advancement Act.”
House Democrats are planning this week to unveil the new version of that bill, named after the late Georgia civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, that could protect voting rights across the United States.
The bill, H.R. 4, aims to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and while it has not been made public yet, it is possible it could do so by establishing a new formula to require all 50 states to get special permission from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting laws or putting in place new voting requirements.
The preclearance formula for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was put in place for nine states, and a handful of cities and countries, with a history of discriminating against Black voters. Those states included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. The handful of counties included those in New York, Florida, North Carolina, California and South Dakota.
At the rally, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said that the fight to protect voting rights will be carried on by the memory of John Lewis, who advocated for the right to vote for decades.
“We know John Lewis was a legend, but he was just a young man when he got off the sidelines and threw himself into the (civil rights) efforts,” Booker said.
And with that memory, Booker acknowledged that it will be a long fight to protect voting rights, just as it was when the Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965.
“(John Lewis) knew that voting rights wouldn’t come by a bunch of folks in the Senate getting together and saying ‘Hey, y’all, you know what, let’s give those Negro people their voting rights,’ ” he said. “That’s not how change is made. Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will. If there is no struggle there is no progress.”
The Daily Montanan contributed to this story.