No Longer Sacred: Voting Rights Become New Political Battleground

by Edwin Quinabo

Politics has been described as a constant tug-of-war.

But since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that put an end to Jim Crow Laws and efforts to keep minorities from voting — at least when it came to the actual voting process, both major US political parties have been doing less pulling and keeping more in-step to having a non-partisan-free zone for elections.

Besides criticism of the Electoral College, the integrity of elections had been rarely called into question by voters; in part because since voting started in this country, each and every presidential candidate eventually would come to accept election results, even after rare cases when they are challenged.

Accepting defeat, historians say, has helped to preserve confidence in our voting system, however imperfect it is.

This has been the democratic culture in this country since the beginning.

That is until President Donald Trump, whose insistence of having been cheated out of office (despite no evidence to back up claims) fertilized unprecedented distrust in the US voting system among Trump loyalists.

Broad skepticism in the voting process, and perhaps even doubts that Republicans could win a future presidential election fair and square, as some Democrats claim, recently have led to Republican state lawmakers enacting “the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of 
Reconstruction [period after slavery],” according to the Washington Post.

The Brennan Center for Justice said State Legislatures this year have introduced more than 361 bills that would restrict voting access in 47 states, many of which have been adopted into law in GOP-majority states.

In light of this, voter rights advocates that have been calling for the passage of a federal reform bill in recent years have elevated their priority from extremely important to code-red urgent as a high-stakes 2022 midterm election draws nearer.

Senate Minority Blocks For the People Act (H.R.1)
The For the People Act (H.R.1) – considered the most important voting rights and anti-corruption bill in over 50 years — passed the House on March 3 this year but sat in the Senate for months.  On June 22, 2021, Republicans blocked it in the Senate Rules Committee by a vote of 9-9 deadlock. Republicans voted to filibuster the bill, even before it got a chance to be debated.H.R.1 needed 60 votes (10 Republican crossovers) to pass. The filibuster in the Senate has effectively set a 60-vote supermajority requirement for passing legislation with few exceptions from budgetary items. H.R.1 fell victim to this Senate rule.

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell called H.R.1 a “one-side power grab” and criticized the bill as paving the way for federal government to have more power over elections.

Twenty Republican State Attorneys General echoed Sen. McConnell’s argument of federal overreach. The Attorneys General called H.R.1 unconstitutional, claiming each state has the power to oversee and regulate elections under the Constitution, not the Federal government.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Republicans for reluctance to start the process of at least debating and amending the bill.

Sen. Schumer said, “Republican senators may have prevented us from having a debate on voting rights. But I want to be very clear about one thing: the fight to protect voting rights is not over. By no means. In the fight for voting rights, this vote was the starting gun, not the finish line.”

Hawaii’s Senator Mazie Hirono said on her social media Facebook page, “The Senate must pass the For the People Act. Our right to vote is fundamental and must be protected.” She said the new voting bills passed in states would make it harder for people to vote.

Hirono, who sits on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Atlantic, “There better be a Plan B. I just don’t know what it is.”There are still talks to figure out what features could be adopted in H.R.1 in a possible future bipartisan bill. One floating around is beefing up voter ID requirements.

Hawaii’s Senator Brian Schatz called the proposal of a provision to include a voter ID requirement in a possible bipartisan bill, “serious,” and said there’s “a lot we can work with,” but on the voter ID suggestion, he “didn’t think it is a perfect proposal.”He told the New York Times, “Right now we should assume that H.R.1 is not going to pass the Senate, so we need to figure out what can.”

At the House Side
Congressman Ed Case (HI-D) co-introduced H.R.1 in the House in 2019 when Democrats retook that Chamber of Congress. It was not given a hearing for consideration in the Senate that year when Sen. McConnell was Majority Leader. Case co-introduced the bill again in 2021.

Case told the Filipino Chronicle, “the For the People Act was [at its original introduction] a truly revolutionary bill to implement many of the most critical government reform efforts.“I also succeeded in including improving amendments when H.R.1 was taken up by the full U.S. House, such as to expand vote-by-mail elections which have been so successful in increasing voter participation in Hawaii,” said Case.

Ending the Filibuster
While H.R.1 has been blocked, there are options being explored.  Ending the filibuster paving the way for a simple majority (51+) is one, should Democrats Sens. Joe Manchin, Krysten Sinema and a handful of others finally agree to it. This would leave open the possibility of H.R.1 being taken up again and possibly passing before the midterm.

Case said, “I firmly believe that H.R.1 should pass the Senate and that with some compromise it can overcome the filibuster.”

Passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R.4)
Another option being explored is passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R.4), which aims to restore enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. A new version of the John Lewis Act has yet to be approved by the House.

“It is likely that the U.S. House will pass the measure as a stand-alone bill later this year,” said Case, who also co-introduced this bill in 2019.

While H.R.1 is prescriptive and specific, H.R.4 creates procedural rules governing voting-rights violations. It creates a cause of action in court for private parties or the federal government to challenge voting or election laws that dilute minority voting rights.

In jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices, H.R.4 would require these jurisdictions or states to submit changes in voting and election laws and procedures to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department for review and “preclearance” as non-discriminatory before they could take effect.

Its passage could have the effect as H.R.1 in stopping some of the new restrictive bills.

Features of H.R.1
US Rep. Case summed up H.R.1 as “fighting voter suppression, simplifying voting, promoting election security, curbing special interest and dark money in politics, incentivizing smaller and broader donations, increasing transparency and fortifying ethics laws.”H.R.1 was the bill voter rights groups had banked on to reverse the multiple new state voter suppression laws.

H.R.1 aims to expand mail-in voting, offer same-day voter registration for federal elections, require states to hold early voting for at least two weeks, establish automatic voter registration, make Election Day a federal holiday, authorize 16-17 year-olds to pre-register to vote before reaching 18.

It also addresses gerrymandering, requiring states to use independent commissions to draw congressional district lines and strengthens voting security by including a voter-verified paper ballot provision.H.R.1 would have been the federal voting law to establish once and for all a uniformed national standard to make voting easier and expand access.

It would have essentially reversed most, if not all, the new state voter suppression laws which have become law.US Rep. Case believes there are features of H.R.1 that could be worked into a new H.R.4.  He mentioned as examples the titles in H.R.1 on executive branch ethics reforms, Congressional ethics reforms, and transparency and disclosures from elected offices as possibilities.

“There’s no reason to believe that the Members of Congress would oppose the remaining reform measures of H.R.1 would accept those provisions in a revised John Lewis Act,” said Case.

New Restrictive State Voting Laws
Some politicos say the GOP-dominated State Legislatures modeled their voter laws by adopting features of H.R.1, but going in the opposing direction as a kind of preemptive strike.

The new restrictive state laws passed are mirror opposites of H.R.1, that includes limiting mail-in voting, shortening early voting, eliminating automatic and same-day voter registration. In addition, they have provisions strengthening voter ID laws, curbing the use of ballot drop boxes, and allowing for more aggressive means to remove people from voter rolls.

Republican state lawmakers say their goal was not to restrict voters but to make voting more secure.

Critics call their new laws plainly more restrictive and undemocratic because they go against what democracy is intended to be, which is to maximize citizens participation in the voting process.

Historical voting patterns suggest these new changes most likely will effect minority and immigrant voters. Democrat voters rely heavily on mail-in voting due to work scheduling conflicts compared to Republican voters who traditionally have high election day voter turnout. This alone favors one party over another.

US Rep. Case said, “Continued voter suppression throughout our country is a national disgrace. In our Hawaii we have largely overcome the prejudices that in earlier generations effectively suppressed large portions of our voters and have served as a model, which causes us to not fully understand that in much of the rest of our country there are very active efforts to discourage many voters from exercising their most basic and critical right of citizenship. We must do everything we can individually and collectively to guarantee the right to vote to all Americans.”

Potential for Backlash Against New Restrictive Laws
Critics say that new voting regulations are so extreme that a backlash is sure to come. In fact, it could come in many forms, politicos are already predicting.

*Voters could be more motivated to go to the polls.

*Law suits will be filed and lengthy court battles could tie up these new laws. The US Justice Department announced last week that it is suing the state of Georgia over its voting restrictions.

“Today, the Department of Justice is suing the state of Georgia,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “Our complaint alleges that recent changes to Georgia’s election laws were enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of black Georgians to vote on account of their race or color in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”

The ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center also filed a lawsuit against Georgia. This doesn’t account for individual citizens who could file personal lawsuits.

Legal experts believe it’s likely that at least one of these legal challenges will work its way up to the US Supreme Court where a decision by the highest court could jeopardize parts or all of these new restrictions.

*Restrictions could bring more awareness for a need for federal voting reform. Public opinion polls already show strong support for features of H.R.1.

Public Opinion on Voting Rights
Two-thirds, nearly 67% of Americans support clean and fair elections, according to a Data for Progress poll.

The poll found overwhelming support for the For the People Act: 77% of Democratic voters, 68% of independent voters, and 56% of Republican voters.

Just over 70% of Americans believe in-person early voting should be made easier, 69% support establishing national guidelines for voting, and a majority support expanding vote-by-mail as well.

Corporate America weighed in on Georgia’s restrictive new law.”Let me get crystal clear and unequivocal. This legislation is unacceptable,” said Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian, said: “I need to make it crystal clear that the final [Georgia] bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.”Corporations have been pressured to act by antagonists to restrictive voting in Georgia.“It was very hard under President Trump, and the business community was hoping that with a change of administration it might get a bit easier,” said Rich Lesser, the chief executive of Boston Consulting Group. “But business leaders are still facing challenges on how to navigate a range of issues, and the elections issue is among the most sensitive.”

Restrictive Voting Laws in Other States Could Harm Hawaii
Marisol Agbayani, Kapolei, said she is concerned about the new restrictive voting laws. “We do not live in these states making it more difficult for people to vote, especially for minorities, but we could still be effected. As we’ve seen in the last presidential election, the results in battleground states [states on the fence politically] made all the difference.

“It’s possible that if these restrictive laws were in place in 2020, Donald Trump could have still been our president.

“I don’t believe the reasons Republican lawmakers are giving that election laws needed to be changed to make elections more secure. They want to rig the system, make it harder for people to vote. Higher voter turnout increases Democrats chances for winning. We saw this in 2020 with the history-breaking turnout. What happened, Biden won as a result of this big turnout.

“It’s not just about me wanting Democrats to win elections. There are Democrats who deserve to be removed from office just as Republicans. It’s just unfair and un-American to make voting more restrictive. It’s against everything our country stands for. Voting is a sacred right.

“Our voices are muted in many areas in every day life. Voting is one of the few ways we feel we have control over our circumstances. I definitely support a federal law that will make voting easier for as many people possible,” said Agbayani. Cora Reyes, Kalihi, supports the new restrictive bills.

“We need to make sure people who vote are who they say they are. I believe in voter rights, but the process must be secure.”

She opposes a federal voting law. “State governments should determine how they want to conduct an election, which is what we have now. This shouldn’t change by federal government interfering. There is all this fuss over restricting voting. I don’t see it this way. It’s about securing our elections. After the 2020 elections, something had to be done,” said Reyes, who is a Trump supporter.

There are others who do not see the divergent views that political parties have on voting rights as something to be weighed equally.

Danny Corpuz, Makakilo, said “It’s very simple. One side is trying to make it harder to vote. That is taking away voting rights. I don’t understand how people can see it any other way.

“Hawaii has had low voter turnout for decades, one of the worst in the nation. But look what happened in 2020 with mail-in voting. They made it easier for us by sending us the ballots. Absentee voting was always an option. But when you make things easier, people will vote. We had so many more people voting because it was convenient.

“So I cannot believe that restricting mail-in voting like what’s happening in other states is a good thing. Any [political] party trying to make things harder to vote don’t want people to vote. They know this. They’re just pretending to support voters rights,” said Corpuz.

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