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Why the Voting Rights Act Can’t Replace H.R. 1/S. 1

You may have seen that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D) sent a letter with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowswki (R) calling on Senate leadership to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the conservatives on the Supreme Court back in 2013. Sen. Manchin has also signaled that he would prefer for the Senate to move ahead with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act potentially instead of S. 1, the For the People Act (currently, Manchin is the only Senate Democrat who has not yet cosponsored the For the People Act).

We believe this approach is flawed for several reasons. First, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (also known as the VRA) has not yet been introduced in the House or Senate. Second, the Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act are two separate pieces of legislation that address different issues related to voter suppression, election security, and other critical democracy reforms. Finally, while we are ardent supporters of the VRA, we believe it is highly unlikely that 10 Republicans will vote “yes” on the bill.

We must pass both the John Lewis Voting Rights Act AND the For the People Act if we want to ensure we have a functioning democracy. Keep reading to learn more.

Pass S.1, the For the People Act NOW!

With our democracy in crisis, we need robust reforms that target voter suppression, gerrymandering, money in politics, corruption, and more. Call your Senator and tell them you want them to move to quickly bring S. 1 to the floor for a vote and not let the filibuster get in the way of passage. Time is of the essence. We must move NOW!

The Voting Rights Act hasn’t been introduced yet

Voting rights advocates are moving carefully and deliberately to ensure that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore the current VRA, can withstand attacks against the bill in court. That means they want a robust legislative record that shows that Congress took a great deal of care in writing the bill, particularly the provisions that deal with “preclearance” -- provisions that would require certain states to get permission to (or “preclear”) new voting restrictions from the Department of Justice before implementing them. These provisions, which determine which states would be subject to these requirements, are the most likely to face legal challenges, so Congress needs to go above and beyond to show they did their homework. This takes time (think: lots of hearings, drafting, amendments, and more), which is why the bill has not been introduced yet and it might not be until September 2021 at the earliest.

While we agree that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is a critical democracy reform and that Congress should reauthorize it with all deliberate speed, the For the People Act is ready to be voted on in the Senate right now -- and we don’t have time to delay.

The Voting Rights Act is not a substitute for the For the People Act

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would not apply retroactively to voter suppression bills that have already passed through state legislatures. The bill is proactive, which means it would only apply to future attempts to suppress the vote. That’s why we need to move ahead with the For the People Act now -- that bill would set a minimum set of standards for the administration of federal elections and would effectively overturn state laws that make it more difficult for people to vote, by:

  • Increasing the number of drop-off boxes
  • Requiring no-excuse absentee voting
  • Establishing automatic voter registration
  • Banning partisan gerrymandering and requiring independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional maps

Republicans won’t vote for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act

There is no indication that Joe Manchin’s proposal has a magical shot at 60 votes -- either way, we need to get rid of the filibuster if we want to fix our democracy. While it’s great that Sen. Murkowski, a Republican, apparently agrees that the VRA should be reauthorized, that doesn’t mean we should throw aside dozens of other great structural democracy reforms that are covered by the For the People Act. Democrats have a majority. They should use it -- by getting rid of the filibuster and passing the For the People Act. And when the VRA is ready to be introduced, they should pass that, too.