The Republicans want to reduce the number of people voting; strengthen the US political system’s existing biases towards allowing them to rule with minority support; and shift the country further towards an authoritarian regime.
Following the Trumpist campaign to claim the 2020 Presidential election was “stolen”, Republican-controlled states in the USA have enacted 25 new laws restricting voting in 2021, compared to 14 in 2019 and 2020 combined. They build on past measures. US election turnout is famously low not just because of voters being unmotivated, but because it is harder then in Europe to get registered as a voter, and often harder to vote once registered.
On 7 May Florida became the latest of eleven states that have enacted laws this year. With 21 million people it is by far the largest. Many more have laws under consideration. About 200 are “live” in state legislatures, in addition to 180 that have expired.
Among other things, Florida’s SB90 law makes it harder to get an absentee ballot, limits the right to have someone else hand in your ballot, restricts the use of drop-off voting boxes and widens the already very large area within which people are not allowed to offer food or drink to those queueing to vote.
The impact is to (further) limit the number of people who can exercise their right to vote — particularly young people, people on low incomes, people with disabilities, and people with dark skin. SB90 also increases the governor’s powers to appoint people to local election boards.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a new favourite on the Republican radical right — whose response to the Black Lives Matter struggle has, like Johnson and Patel’s, been to strengthen police powers to crack down on “civil unrest” — signed the bill live in a ceremony broadcast exclusively on Fox News.
Florida is a long-standing voting rights battleground. It accounts for a quarter of all US citizens disenfranchised as result of the widespread practice of denying the vote to people with criminal convictions, with one in ten Floridians and one in five black Floridians barred.
In 2018, 64.5% of Florida voters approved state constitutional amendments to end this disenfranchisement. The changes were gutted and re-enfranchisement largely blocked by the same Republican politicians who have now introduced these new attacks on the right to vote.
Another legislative voting rights battle is coming up in the key swing state of Michigan (ten million people), which has a Democratic governor but a Republican legislature — and an insurgent far right that has repeatedly attempted to terrorise the governor. A sweeping voter suppression bill has already passed in the lower house and will now go to the state senate in Texas (population 30 million).
The Democrats push back
400-odd state bills to limit voting rights seems startling, but there have been twice that many to expand them. Virginia, now completely controlled by the Democrats, has made election day a state holiday, repealed a voter ID law and introduced no-excuse absentee voting. Earlier this year it reinstated election rules required until 2013 by federal law to prevent discrimination in voting rights (see below).
The Democratic bills are generally the mirror image of the Republican ones. A majority focus on making absentee voting easier; some would make it easier to register, and some expand the number of polling places and use of drop boxes. A number of bills restore voting rights to those with convictions.
Like anti-voting bills, pro-voting ones have now been introduced in the great majority of state legislatures. But the Republicans control most legislatures: 61.5 lower and upper chambers to the Democrats’ 37.5 (they improved this margin in the 2020 elections). They are also ahead on governors, 27 to 23 (again, slightly gaining last year).
Much of the Democrats’ focus is therefore on federal measures, through Congress. There are two main pieces of legislation under discussion.
A bill named for liberal civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis, who died last year, is designed to restore the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which the Supreme Court invalidated in 2013. The Court declared unconstitutional a formula for determining which state and local governments could be required to get federal “pre-clearance” for changes to election rules, based on their history of discrimination in voting rights. At least on paper, the grounds were that it was decades out of date.
The Court made the pre-clearance system inoperative, but did not rule it unconstitutional as such. The “John Lewis Voting Rights Act” has not yet been voted on by the House of Representatives, where the Democrats have a clear majority, apparently because they want to try to create a new formula that they think would survive scrutiny by a Supreme Court that is even more right-wing than in 2013.
“For the People”?
More immediately important is HR1, the “For the People Act”, which has already passed the House 220-210 (with one Democrat and every Republican voting against).
HR1 contains a very wide variety of “good government” measures. In terms of voting rights, these include: requiring state officials to automatically register eligible voters, with an opt-out; prohibiting states from restricting voters’ access to mail-in ballots; requiring early voting sites for federal elections to stay open for at least 15 consecutive days, for ten hours a day; allowing a sworn affidavit in place of voter ID where required; allowing voters to designate a third party to drop off a sealed-and-signed ballot; and restoring voting rights to former convicts.
(The bill would also create independent commissions, one third from each party and one third independent, to redraw congressional districts, to prevent the kind of partisan gerrymandering that Republican state legislatures are expected to ramp up for the 2022 elections.)
In the Senate, where HR1 is due to come up imminently, the Democrats have an effective majority of one, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break a 50-50 tie. However, current rules mean the bill would need 60 out of 100 votes to get past a Republican “filibuster”.
By a simple majority the Democrats could abolish the filibuster system or carve out exemptions. However, a number of conservative Democratic Senators — most prominently Joe Manchin of West Virginia — aggressively oppose such a move.
The 50 Republican senators able to block the passage of most Democratic bills mostly represent smaller states, and thus only 43.5% of the US population. Republicans have not represented a majority in Senate voting since 1996, but have won a majority in eight of the 13 elections since then. This bias is likely to grow further.
In any case, Manchin opposes HR1, as well as wanting to keep the “filibuster”. All other Democratic Senators have signed HR1, but some are said to be unenthusiastic. HR51, which would allow the people of the District of Columbia to vote in Congressional elections, also looks like being blocked by the Senate.
By the people
The Biden administration has been able to pass extensive measures regarded as budgetary, because these are not subject to the filibuster. But a Senate official ruled that a $15 minimum wage could not be included.
As Traven Leyshon discussed in Solidarity 592 the Protecting the Right to Organise (PRO) Act, a pro-trade union bill that, while inadequate, in some ways goes significantly further than what Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour proposed, looks doomed by the “filibuster” too. The top Democrat leadership may of course find it quite agreeable to indicate support for left-wing measures but declare itself powerless to pass them.
As Traven said of the PRO Act: “The bill will not pass without a mass mobilisation of unions and allies which would have to include protests, rallies and workplace actions.” The same general idea applies to HR1.
On extensive police reform, US public support peaked during the big Black Lives Matter mobilisations of summer 2020 and has declined a bit since. Grassroots struggles for voting rights may be important in that battle, too.