Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the sole Republican senator to vote to advance to debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a major item of voting rights legislation that would have stored key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down by the Supreme Court.
House Democrats passed their version of the bill, H.R. 4, in August with no GOP votes, and Murkowski announced she would support a substitute amendment to the Senate version’s, S.4., after negotiations with key Democratic Senators who drafted the legislation.
“I have supported this particular legislation in previous Congresses and continued to work with my colleagues on it, because it provides a framework through which legitimate voting rights issues can be tackled,” she said in a Tuesday statement. “This year, our bill incorporates the Native American Voting Rights Act, which addresses some of the long-standing obstacles that American Indians and Alaska Natives face.”
She added: “Every American deserves equal opportunity to participate in our electoral system and political process, and this bill provides a starting point as we seek broader bipartisan consensus on how best to ensure that.”
Under the current Senate filibuster rules, a three-fifths majority of 60 votes is required to advance to debate on most legislation, making it a heavy lift to break a filibuster in a Senate divided between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Nine of Murkowski’s Republican colleagues would have needed to join her to open debate.
Earlier this year, all 50 Senate Republicans moved to block two sweeping, wide-ranging Democratic voting rights and Democracy reform packages, the For the People Act in June and the slimmed-down Freedom to Vote Act in October.
The 2021 version of the Voting Rights Advancement Act specifically targets the majority-conservative Supreme Court, seeking to undo years of the court undermining the Voting Rights Act and making it more difficult for plaintiffs to win emergency election-related lawsuits.
The most consequential portion of the bill would restore the federal preclearance regime that, for decades, required states and municipalities with histories of discrimination to seek permission from the federal government before enacting voting changes or new district maps.
In Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, the Supreme Court majority ruled that the previous formula used to determine which jurisdictions were covered under that requirement was unconstitutional, leaving the preclearance provision unenforceable for the eight years since.
The bill also seeks to undo the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Brnovich vs. Democratic National Committee, in which the court’s conservative majority significantly weakened protections against discriminatory voting laws in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
It further takes aim at the federal courts’ handling of election litigation, requiring judges to explain their reasoning in cases decided through the emergency appeals process and seeking to constrain judges from denying such emergency appeals based on proximity to the election.
Previous reauthorization and extensions of the Voting Rights Act have garnered strong bipartisan support, including most recently in 2006.
But in the 15 years since, and especially after Shelby County v. Holder, GOP legislatures in many states have enacted aggressive voting rules and redistricting plans, leading political parties to descend into increasingly intense legal fights over voting rules.
Speaking to reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued the legislation isn’t necessary because the rest of the Voting Rights Act is still standing.
“There’s no evidence right now, anywhere in the country, that states are engaged in suppressing the vote based upon race,” McConnell said.
Senate Democrats have slammed Republicans’ unwillingness to even debate the legislation.
“I hope more members on the other side of the aisle follow in Senator Murkowski’s example. Senate Republicans shouldn’t be afraid of merely starting debate on an issue we’ve long debated and long supported in the past,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday.
“But crossing their arms and squelching any opportunity for progress is unacceptable. If Republicans have different ideas on how to achieve a stronger democracy, they owe it to the American people to come forward and debate their ideas,” he added.