U.S. Senate Republicans block a voting rights bill for the third time this year

By: - November 4, 2021 12:15 am

The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, was the youngest and last surviving member of the Big Six civil rights activists who led the fight to end legalized segregation and overturn Jim Crow laws. He was arrested dozens of times and also beaten as a Freedom Rider. Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday blocked another voting rights bill, this one named for Georgia civil rights icon John R. Lewis.

On a 50-49 vote, the Senate declined to proceed to debate on the latest Democratic effort at a nationwide voting rights overhaul meant to stymie Republican-led state laws restricting voting access.

It was the third time this year Senate Democrats tried to bring a voting rights bill to the floor and the third time the attempt failed in the face of overwhelming GOP opposition.

All 50 Senate Democrats and one Republican, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, voted in favor on Wednesday before Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.), changed his yes vote to no for procedural reasons. Casting a no vote allows him to call another vote on the bill later. Senate rules require 60 votes to proceed to debate.

Murkowski was the first Republican senator to support any of the Democrats’ voting rights efforts this year. In a release Tuesday, she highlighted a portion of a substitute amendment she cosponsored that would expand voting access to Tribal and Alaska Native communities.

She did not support earlier voting rights bills and noted the new proposal she co-wrote was not the “sweeping overhaul” earlier versions represented.

Murkowski still has concerns

Although she voted to proceed to debate, Murkowski said she didn’t support all provisions of the bill text released Tuesday. The measure should be reworked through the committee process, she said Wednesday.

“Even with those changes, I still have concerns,” she said on the Senate floor. “Substantive changes will be needed before this measure is ready to pass the Senate.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), said Democrats would continue to work on pushing legislation through the Senate, which is evenly divided between the parties.

“Democrats are not done on the issue of voting rights,” Murray, a member of party leadership, said just before the vote.

Murray called on Republicans to join, but also said she would support ending the filibuster to enact the bill.

Murkowski urged Congress to enact bipartisan reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, noting Congress had updated the landmark civil rights law five times. The most recent reauthorization passed the Senate 98-0 in 2006.

Congress has not renewed the law, though, since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that significantly weakened it.

Murkowski urged her fellow Republicans to help update federal voting regulations.

“We need to be willing to get in, mix it up, work it out, instead of sitting back on the sidelines and say, ‘I just don’t like your product, and I’m not going to offer anything else,’” she said. “I believe it is simply dangerous to let voting rights become a wholly partisan issue.”

Other Republicans unmoved

But Republicans have shown little inclination to join her call.

In a floor speech Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky criticized Democrats for trying to give the federal government too much control over elections processes. Elections, even for national offices, are administered by state and local governments.

“This has become an almost weekly routine — my friends on the other side trying to give Washington unprecedented power over how Americans cast their vote,” McConnell said.

President Joe Biden’s administration “strongly supports” the bill, the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a Wednesday statement. The flurry of state laws this year were an effort to “delegitimize the election and make it harder to vote,” the administration said.

By July, state Republican lawmakers in 18 states had passed 30 laws with restrictive voting provisions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The bill, named for Lewis, who was elected to Congress as a Georgia Democrat after spending years as a leader in the civil rights movement, would restore requirements for certain states to secure pre-approval from the federal government for any significant changes to voting rights.

The so-called preclearance requirements were a central part of the 1965 law credited with overturning Jim Crow voting restrictions that denied Black people ballot access. The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case severely weakened the preclearance requirement.

That ruling paved the way for several Republican-led states to enact restrictions following the 2020 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump and many elected Republicans have without basis sought to delegitimize the results that declared Biden the winner.

The Native American Voting Rights Act title of the bill, strongly supported by Murkowski and Biden, would allow tribes to request voter registration sites and polling places on tribal lands, authorize tribal ID cards as a valid form of voting identification and authorize a $10 million Native American Voting Rights Task Force grant program.

The U.S. House passed a separate sprawling voting rights bill, 220-210, in March. Pared back versions failed to advance in the Senate in June and October.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter in the States Newsroom Washington bureau. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues as well as climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

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