Polling site at PS 375 Jackie Robinson School in Brooklyn on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Voting. (302654)
Polling site at PS 375 Jackie Robinson School in Brooklyn on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Voting. Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Leading civil rights organizations clamored for Senators to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 to standardize voting election laws nationally, as well as eliminate the filibuster tactic of blocking laws, but both were categorically shot down this week.

The combined package of Freedom to Vote, John Lewis Acts passed the House but did not make its way through the Senate. The bill aimed to make sure that voters, especially historically disenfranchised Black and Brown voters across the country, can safely and freely cast their ballots. The bill addressed some of the major problems facing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which set the national standards to protect access to voting but was watered down over the years by the Supreme Court. The bill called for several controversial provisions, like making Election Day a federal holiday, restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies, same-day voter registration, and early voting.

Even though many Senators supported the legislation, a Republican filibuster blocked the bill from reaching a final vote, reported the New York Times (NYT).

Black-led civil rights groups, such as NAACP and National Action Network, expressed a special “disappointment” in senators of both parties who were motivated to amend the Senate rules for economic matters, but are unwilling to do so for voting rights.

Pastor Rhonda Thomas, executive director of Faith in Florida and a member of the Black Southern Women’s Collaborative, added that she was deeply saddened and annoyed by the standstill over voting legislation from 50 years ago. Thomas, who grew up in Florida, said she voted for the first time with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in 1977 when she was 18 years old, marking a momentous occasion.

“My prayer is that Dr. King’s dream stays alive and well, and that his dream does not become a nightmare because of the fight we have with the voting rights act,” said Thomas.

Another barrier to passing legislation has been the filibuster, a legal technique that has actively delayed the passage of plenty of Democratic bills.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had vowed to get rid of the “obstructionist GOP filibuster,” addressed the Senate floor on Tuesday, Jan. 18. He said that the Democrats had consistently been blocked on the debate floor by Republicans. “When this chamber confronts a question this important—one so vital to our country, so vital to our ideals, so vital to our future in democracy,” said Schumer, “you don’t slide it off the table and say nevermind.”

House Democratic Caucus Chair and U.S. Rep Hakeem Jeffries, in an interview on Jan. 17, said that there were ongoing conversations with both Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Jeffries noted that the Freedom to Vote Act is Manchin’s voting rights protection legislation and was confused as to how he’s allowing Republicans to filibuster his own bill.

“That doesn’t make a lot of sense to a lot of us, particularly given the stakes that exist right now. Republicans have decided to adopt voter suppression as an electoral tactic because they’ve concluded that the only way that the radical right can consistently win elections is to engage in voter suppression,” said Jeffries. “I can’t think of something that’s more unconscionable and more un-American, and we’ve got to undo it in the United States Senate.”

Unfortunately, the move to change the Senate’s filibuster rules without Republican consent was also blocked, reported NYT.

“Last night, certain feckless members of the US Senate blocked voting rights legislation that would have protected voters from an avalanche of restrictive state laws aimed at reducing participation and silencing peoples’ voices. This failure is an insult to all Americans, especially to Black and Brown voters who are most often targeted by discriminatory and racist state laws,” said Senator Zellnor Y. Myrie, chair of the Senate Elections Committee in New York State.

“States must now urgently move to protect and expand voting rights, and New York can lead the way. My bill, the John R. Lewis New York State Voting Rights Act, would enact the strongest voter protections in the country,” added Myrie.

Meanwhile, at least New York’s Senate Democratic Majority kicked off their legislative session on Jan. 10 by building on pro-voter reforms that should improve the state’s electoral system.

The voting reforms being passed include COVID-absentee voting for school district elections, the Democracy Preservation Act, polling places on college campuses, adjusting candidate order on ballots, portable polling locations for early voting, absentee drop-off boxes, and counting of affidavit ballots.

“At the start of every session we pay homage to the voters of this state and take action to ensure their votes are respected and protected,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement. “As states around the country have rolled back voting reforms, here in New York, we have made it clear that elections matter, voting matters, and leadership matters.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here: bit.ly/amnews1

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