Fight to secure the freedom to vote heats up in Congress
By: Jenny Manrique
While legislators in 47 states have introduced nearly 400 bills that seek to restrict voting
rights, two key initiatives are being considered in Congress to strengthen access to the
polls and protect against racial discrimination.
For the People Act, and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, are
initiatives that seek to prevent foreign interference in elections, limit the influence of
money on politics, and modernize infrastructure to increase electoral security. They also
establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions, a 15-day early voting period for all
federal elections, and expanded access to voting by mail and automatic voter
registration, among other provisions.
“These bills are critical to stopping the scourge of vote suppression that is facing our
country today, and to protecting the freedom to vote going forward,” said Wendy Weiser,
Vice President of Democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School,
during a press briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services.
“Voting rights in America are under attack as they haven’t been since the Jim Crow era,
and the push to restrict access to voting in state legislatures is unprecedented,” she
The Brennan Center has been tracking more than 360 bills that have already been
signed into law in states like Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa and Utah and are aggressively
moving toward approval in others like Arizona, Texas, Michigan and New Hampshire.
These laws seek to tighten voter identification requirements, make voter registration
more difficult, and expand voter list purges – all measures that particularly affect ethnic
communities. In most cases, these local initiatives have been justified in “false
narratives about supposed voter fraud, without a shred of evidence,” said Thomas
Saenz, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and
Educational Fund (MALDEF).
“When (political) leaders seeking to retain power and knowing they do not have the
support of the growing Latino community, they take steps to suppress the vote,” added
Saenz. The growth of the Hispanic vote in places like Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada
and Colorado, was decisive for the Democratic triumph in those states in 2020.
Asian Americans, African Americans, and other minorities also saw an unprecedented
rise in voter turnout.
In states like Texas, Latinos already make up 40% of the population. After the census
results, the state won two more representatives in the House. If Hispanic turnout at the
polls follows the numbers seen in past elections, their vote could contribute to another
blue victory for those new seats.
“In parts of our country, primarily the South, but also including the State of Texas, we
must anticipate that if there is a new community reaching critical mass to threaten the
(local) powers, there is a need to have in place protections including pre clearance
review requirements,” Saenz said.
The section V of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 established that states could not approve
changes in voting rules without federal authorization. But that section was overthrown
by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, which has allowed discriminatory practices against
minorities, the elderly and youth.
Saenz argues that in the case of Latinos, the greatest threat is “intimidation” with
measures such as demanding proof of citizenship for new voters and poll watchers who
have permission to take cell phone video of voters who are receiving assistance at the
In the case of the African American population, measures such as voter ID restrictions,
moving of precincts without adequate notice and limitations to mail-in voting, are serious
threats to this right.
According to Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy for the
National Association for the Advancement of People of Color (NAACP), “seemingly
innocuous issues like having to have an official state photo ID means in some places
that people that don’t own cars (without a driver’s license), now having to pay an
additional expense… if you have to pay extra money to go to the polls and cast your
vote, that is a poll tax.”
Shelton also stressed that the United States is one of the few countries that does not
automatically register its citizens in the electoral rolls when they turn 18, “but it does
register them for the draft.”
Another right to vote that the initiatives in Congress want to restore is that of Americans
with criminal records. “If you’ve made the mistake of committing a felony offense, even
after you’ve served the time, even after you’ve come out of jail, in most states today you
No polling places
The situation is more dire for Native American voters. According to Jacqueline De León,
Staff Attorney for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), over the past four years her
organization has challenged in court North Dakota’s voter ID law, Montana’s ballot
collection ban, Alaska’s witness signature requirement to vote during the pandemic, and
the refusal to open an in-person polling location on the Blackfeet reservation, that would
have forced tribal members to travel up to 120 miles in order to vote.
“We have filed nearly 100 lawsuits, with a success rate of over 90%. These cases have
been litigated in front of judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents,
and the facts are so bad that we nearly always win,” De León said. “But litigation is a
blunt and expensive instrument that could have been avoided if the laws that go to
Congress had been in effect today.”
Many Native American reservations do not have polling places, and DMVs and post
offices can be hundreds of miles away. “Due to ongoing discrimination and government
neglect, many Native Americans live in overcrowded homes that do not have an
address, do not receive mail, and are located on dirt roads, that can be impassable in
wintery November,” De León said.
Another provision that the bills in Congress want to include is assistance at the polls for
people with disabilities and access to ballots in different languages.
“Language barriers are one of the biggest impediments to the Asian-American vote with
one-third of Asian-Americans being what is called limited English proficient,” said John
C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice
“In every election poll, monitors have observed missing Asian language signage and
interpreters, which limits our access to the ballot. Ensuring effective language
assistance is paramount to closing that consistent barrier in national and local
elections,” he said.
The John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will be presented shortly in the
House of Representatives and the For the People Act has already passed in the House
and will have a Senate hearing in the next two weeks. Several polls have shown that
both bills have bipartisan support. ( JM / IM )