What’s the latest status of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the American Jobs Plan of 2021, the Filibuster, and the For the People Act of 2021?
By Beverly George, ACE Founder
and Janice Podolski, ACE Steering Committee Member
Here’s an update on some federal pieces of legislation Congress has been working on since the Biden administration took office in January.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed the previous (116th) Congress in the House, but stalled in the Senate. However, it has not yet been passed by the 117th Congress in the House or the Senate. The target date to pass is June 30, 2021.
History of Voting Rights
A quick look at the history of voting rights might be helpful to understand this legislation and what it hopes to accomplish.
The 15th Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870, and guaranteed the right to vote to former slaves (eligible Black male voters) and was the last of three Reconstruction amendments.
Reconstruction lasted about ten years. After 1875, the guaranteed right to vote was seldom delivered in the former slave states following their rush to pass Jim Crow laws. These restrictive election laws rested on the argument for states’ rights to legislate and implement federal, state, and local elections. Jim Crow laws tightened after WWI and again after WWII, when America’s Black soldiers returned from military service expecting to be treated with greater equality under the law.
Ninety-five years after the 15th Amendment was passed, the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) was signed and showed a national commitment to be more fair and equal in delivering the guaranteed right to vote to Black and Brown voters. It also provided the legal teeth to pursue vote suppression and enforce protections.
In 1965, before it was passed, only 7% of eligible Black voters in Mississippi were registered to vote.
In 1967– just two years later- 60% of eligible Black voters in Mississippi were registered to vote.
In Section 5 of the 1965 VRA, there was a preclearance clause to prevent certain states with discriminatory histories to make changes in election laws without prior approval from Department of Justice or a federal court. The VRA targeted the whole of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Caroline, and Virginia and also other selected districts and counties with records of voter suppression in six other states. The law worked for 48 years and was extended by Republican presidents and with bipartisan support.
In 2013, the Supreme Court decision on “Shelby County v. Holder” gutted the 1965 VRA. Preclearance came to a screeching halt when Chief Justice John Roberts called the preclearance formula “outdated,” and overnight, many southern states wrote and passed new, more restrictive voting laws. The law with its outdated preclearance formula remains on the books. Therefore, writing a new, functional preclearance formula is the primary purpose and focus of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Proponents want to have a restored VRA in place before states that might be subject to preclearance requirements finish the decennial redistricting process and create congressional and state legislative maps intended to be in place until 2032.
Current Evidence of Suppression and Voter Restrictions
Legislative efforts to suppress voting rights since January 2021 include the following.
- As of March 24th, 361 bills with restrictive provisions had been introduced in 47 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
- Georgia and Florida have already passed and signed new restrictive voting laws.
- Texas is rushing to make access to voting even harder, and this is after Texas went for Trump, Senate seats and Congressional elections went to Republicans, and state elections went to Republicans. These red results demolished all predictions for purple or blue wins in the 2020 campaigns.
- Arizona’s Maricopa County November votes are currently being counted again by Cyber Ninjas. The recount was voted for by 16 Republican state senators out of 30 senators, total. Maricopa County is the densely populous home to two-thirds of Arizona voters, and the state went to Biden by a very slim 10,457 votes.
Examples of voting restrictions in recently proposed state laws across the country include the following.
- Shortened hours to drop off mail-in ballots. Some drop boxes will close at 5 p.m. when many people are just getting off work.
- Shorter access to early voting in fewer locations, fewer number of days, and in shorter hours for early voting each day.
- Qualifying reasons for mail-in ballots have been narrowed and required.
- The window of time for mail-in ballots has been narrowed.
- The window for counting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day has been shortened.
- Purges of voter rolls are allowed.
- Same-day voter registration is not allowed.
- Number of polling sites have been reduced and location of sites can change at the last minute without sufficient notice to voters in affected precincts.
How the John Lewis Voting Rights Act Could Help
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would create a new coverage formula for preclearance, which would be applicable to all states and would be applied when a state, district, or county has voting laws that have resulted in repeated voting rights violations during the past 25 years. Such a state would be covered with preclearance for ten years, the 10-year period continuously rolling forward to keep up with current conditions to vote so that only states with a recent record of racial discrimination in voting are covered. If states rewrite their voting laws to remove restrictions, they will eventually come out of preclearance coverage. It also will include the following measures.
- The process for reviewing changes in voting would be limited to a given set of measures, such as a state instituting a law requiring voter identification or the reduction of multilingual voting materials.
The law would allow a federal court to order states or jurisdictions to be covered for preclearance for results-based violations where the effect of a particular voting measure, like requiring voter IDs, has previously led to racial discrimination in voting and to denying citizens their right to vote.
The law would require reasonable public notice for voting changes to yield greater transparency.
- Federal observers could be requested through the attorney general’s office when there is a serious threat of voter discrimination.
- The law would increase accessibility and protections for Native Americans and Alaskan native voters.
Will It Pass?
Will it pass? The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is likely to pass in the House, but not in the Senate. Recently, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said he would support it if the law is written so it applies to all 50 states and not just the states currently writing voting laws to “restore election integrity.”
American Jobs Plan of 2021
The American Jobs Plan of 2021 (AJP) was introduced by President Joe Biden on March 31, 2021. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 12th District) hopes to get it passed in the House by July 4, 2021, but it will likely slip to late summer or early fall.
AJP 2021 is part one of a two-part package. Part two is the American Families Plan to be released in coming weeks.
This is an omnibus infrastructure bill, which covers the traditional category of roads and bridges and has been expanded to include ports and airports; rural and urban broadband coverage across the nation; clean energy infrastructure and jobs; clean-up and repurposing of old manufacturing sites; education from pre-K through college; childcare for working parents; clean water (removal of lead pipes); improved and modernized passenger and freight railway lines; and plans to facilitate economic growth in rural and tribal communities. It also includes the “Made in America” Tax Plan, which encourages manufacturers to produce goods and create jobs in the United States and requires them to pay higher corporate tax rates.
A filibuster requires 60 votes to pass a law in the Senate, a supermajority rather than a simple majority of 50% of the senators + 1. This practice is not in the U.S. Constitution, but is part of the Senate Rules and came into use after Reconstruction and the passing of the 15th Amendment.
The filibuster is no longer like actor Jimmy Stewart talking for a full day on the Senate floor to delay a corrupt public works bill like in the 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Today’s filibuster simply needs to be invoked by a single senator, and the bill is usually halted due to the supermajority requirement. In the current Senate, it’s almost impossible to get 60 senators to agree on anything.
H.R. 1/S.1: For the People Act of 2021
This 885-page bill would address voter access, election integrity, and security, campaign finance, and ethics for all three branches of government, according to the congress.gov website. It passed the House on March 3, 2021 with a 220-210 vote along party lines. It stalled at a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing on May 11, 2021, and was deadlocked 9 – 9 along party lines.
Specifically, the bill would expand voter registration, such as automatic and same-day registration, and voting access, including vote-by-mail and early voting. It also would limit removing voters from voter rolls. The bill would require states to establish independent redistricting commissions to carry out congressional redistricting.
Additionally, the For the People Act of 2021 would contain provisions related to election security, including sharing intelligence information with state election officials, supporting states in securing their election systems, developing a national strategy to protect U.S. democratic institutions, establishing in the legislative branch the National Commission to Protect United States Democratic Institutions, and other provisions to improve the cybersecurity of election systems.
Further, the bill would address campaign financing by expanding the prohibition on campaign spending by foreign nationals, requiring additional disclosure of campaign-related fundraising and spending, requiring additional disclaimers regarding certain political advertising, and establishing an alternative campaign funding system for certain federal offices.
The legislation would reform ethics in all three branches of government by requiring a code of conduct for Supreme Court Justices, prohibiting members of the House from serving on the board of a for-profit entity, and establishing additional conflict-of-interest and ethics provisions for federal employees and the White House.
The bill will require the president, the vice president, and certain candidates for those offices to disclose 10 years of tax returns.
If passed, these pieces of legislation would have a major impact on the United States as we know it, specifically on the rules of American governance, voting rights, and the U.S. economy.
John Lewis Voting Rights Act
American Jobs Plan of 2021
For the People Act of 2021
ACE Founder Beverly George is a member of Indivisible, the Naperville League of Women Voters, and the Citizens Climate Lobby. She also volunteers with her parish PADS group. A former chemist, George worked in clinical chemistry and hematology research at the Centers for Disease Control for six years and taught chemistry and freshman science at Naperville North High School for 20 years.
ACE Steering Committee Member Janice Podolski is a retired faculty member from the Department of Pharmacology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She was a registered nurse for fifty years and has a master’s degree in Nursing and Ph.D. in Physiology. She volunteers at Loaves & Fishes Community Services and with PADS in DuPage County.