By Isabel Pulgarin
Fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington to fight for voting access for all, Martin Luther King III marched in his father’s footsteps on Aug. 28, 2021 to champion voting rights reform in America.
Today, the Senate awaits the new John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, H.R 4, a bill passed by the House of Representatives in August to allow the federal government to prevent states from infringing on voter rights.
Essentially, this was what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to do 55 years ago. The 1965 legislation was passed to prevent southern states from passing voting laws that infringed on the rights of minorities, like instilling literacy tests and poll taxes. Then, “Bloody Sunday” happened in Selma, Alabama where protesters, including a youthful John Lewis, were sprayed with chemicals and beaten with police batons in the view of the public.
President Lyndon B. Johnson had a disreputable case for change and the 1965 Act was rushed through Congress.
Aside from the John Lewis Act, there is another legislative act that is currently brewing in Congress.
Back in January, the For the People Act, S.1, was introduced and passed in the House but was later filibustered off the Senate floor and thrown out.
Barry Political Science Professor Leah Blumenfeld defined S.1 as a broader and more “sweeping” bill and that H.R. 4 is narrow.
“[The John Lewis Act] is more conciliatory, it’s more moderate, it’s not as bad, it’s not as sweeping, so that’s supposed to be by design to get some moderates on board like [Senator Joe Manchin],” she said.
While S.1 was meant to automatically register eligible citizens, “[neuter] voter ID laws,” make mail and early in-person voting easy in all states and “establish bipartisan commissions to draw the lines for legislative districts,” H.R 4 – the John Lewis act - focuses on the skeleton of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to override the restrictive voting laws passed in states that remove people from mail voting lists and discriminatory ID rules.
The original Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized by a bipartisan Congress five times since it was passed half a decade ago. The most recent restatement was by President George W. Bush who vowed to defend it in court.
Since then, there have been two recent Supreme Court rulings that have addressed and struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
In 2013, the Court’s decision of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder said that Section 5 was unconstitutional. It was a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, requiring certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice before the change goes into effect. This section safeguarded minority voters from changes that had the potential to disenfranchise them once again.
Then, earlier this year, the Brnovich vs. Democratic National Committee case dealt with two of Arizona's election policies: one banned the collection of ballots by a third-party individual and another banned out-of-precinct voting.
The Supreme Court ruled in a 6–3 decision in July 2021 that neither of Arizona's election policies violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or had a racially discriminatory purpose. Their policies have been reinstated and now set a precedent, allowing states to pass election changes after there have been claims and threats of fraud.
In fact, this is now a major topic of debate since the 2020 election.
And, with the justice department’s system of preapproving election changes out of the way, southern states like Texas, Georgia and Florida have begun passing more restrictive voting laws.
Florida’s new voting law includes changes in who can drop off ballots at drop boxes; limits who can give out food and water to voters in line and sets limits on where staff can be stationed to do so; and sets a mandatory eight days of early voting.
Sophomore graphic design student, Brian Guerrero, believes this Florida law is just.
“I think voting should be secure and people shouldn’t be able to send multiple votes,” he said. “I think to change the law to in-person voting would be better since people can keep count on how many people that day and no one will be able to vote multiple times through emails or mail.”
Florida still maintains their no-excuse vote-by-mail procedure but now requires more frequent requests for mail-in ballots.
Nevertheless, the justice department vowed to continue to “defend voting rights as the ‘cornerstone’ of American democracy,” under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the only provision in full standing, according to NPR.
This piece primarily “prevents minority vote dilution” or the flushing out of votes cast by people of color in the redistricting process and, most importantly, bans the infringement of voting rights based on race or color.
Under the shadow of many failed attempts to pass the John Lewis Act, many aren’t optimistic of the bill’s standing in the split Senate.
“I expect to see the same partisan split in the Senate. It’s an even more difficult hurdle because it’s 50-50. And technically the Democrats have the majority because they have Kamala Harris being the president of the Senate to break ties,” said Blumenfeld.