The fight to protect voting rights at the federal level is dead. But there’s still a glimmer of hope.

voting rights protestor with sign
Activists from various grassroots organizations rally outside City Hall in Los Angeles, California on July 7, 2021, calling on Congress and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to remove the filibuster and pass the “For the People Act” to expand voting rights.

  • The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Arizona’s law that makes it harder to vote.
  • Congress has stalled out on advancing legislation to protect voting rights.
  • But while the fight for voting rights may have died on the federal level, there is still hope to drive out people and protect voting at the state level.
  • Michael Gordon is a longtime Democratic strategist, a former spokesman for the Justice Department, and the principal for the strategic-communications firm Group Gordon.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court signed the death certificate for voting rights. In a 6-3 decision along ideological lines, the Court decided that Arizona could implement restrictions that hamper the ability of Black and brown voters to cast their ballot.

In essence, more than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act became law, the federal protections against racially discriminatory voting policies have been stripped away. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court has given new energy to right wing states that want to keep minority voters away from the polls.

Democrats have the Supreme Court and red states against them. So their only choice left is to go local – and out-organize anyone standing in their way.

The big lie on steroids

While Republican-controlled states have passed onerous voting laws for years, the recent spate of voter suppression tactics all stem from former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie.” The fact that President Joe Biden won the reliably Republican states of Georgia and Arizona sent a shockwave through the GOP. We all know, and perhaps expected, Trump to falsely claim that there was voter “fraud” after his 2020 loss. But now Republicans are falling all over themselves to please the former President by enacting laws to prevent these nonexistent “irregularities” from happening again.

Arizona, where the Supreme Court case originated, prevents friends and neighbors from helping someone turn in absentee ballots. It also allows the state to disqualify voters who accidentally vote in the wrong precinct. Republicans claim they are trying to prevent fraud, but the actual intention is clear when you recognize that local GOP officials routinely shift voting locations in minority neighborhoods – making it easier for these voters to accidentally run afoul of the new law.

Georgia’s new laws, the cause of much outcry earlier this year, not only tighten voter ID requirements – a dog whistle for preventing Black folks from voting – but also make it a crime to pass out water to voters in line. Considering there are generally longer lines where Black voters vote, the water bottle law is designed to force Black voters out of line before making it to the front.

These laws aren’t just in swing states, either. States like Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma have all passed laws making it harder to vote by mail, on top of many other voting restrictions. This is an epidemic, and Democrats must use every means at their disposal to fight back before it’s too late.

Filibustering the filibuster

The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats’ most effective response to voter suppression is to pass a new federal voter protection law. Indeed, some of the very first bills put forth in the US House and Senate this year were to protect voting rights, like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The bills have not seen much success because of Republican intransigence.

The most common solution to move past the GOP is changing the filibuster, which prevents any bill from moving forward in the Senate unless it has 60 supporters. Given the 50-50 split in the chamber, this effectively gives the Republican minority veto power over almost every bill brought to the Senate floor.

After the Supreme Court decision, Democrats are calling again for an end to the filibuster so that the voting rights law can pass. But that ship has sailed. The Democrats in the ideological center of the Senate, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have not moved on changing the filibuster. And with their stubbornness on the filibuster goes any chance of a new federal voting law.

Democrats across the country need to stop hoping that Congress or the courts will fix this problem. They won’t. Democrats need to take charge themselves.

Voter suppression boomerang

While efforts may be stymied at the federal level, Democrats do have a chance to harness the energy and outrage around voter suppression to increase voter turnout at the state and local level.

To start, they need to let Black, brown, and younger voters know that Republicans are trying to prevent them from voting, and inform them of how to stay on top of their right to vote. Major Democratic Super PACs are already investing in this kind of work, but more funds and more people will be necessary to make a real difference.

In Arizona, where casting a ballot in the wrong place can lead to disqualification, voter education campaigns are essential. The GOP technique only works to suppress the vote when voters don’t know their polling location. With solid organizing, Democrats can ensure every single voter knows where to cast their ballot.

In Georgia, ground zero for many false claims of election fraud, Democrats have already shown what it takes to fight back. Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight has been on the front lines of combating voter suppression. As a result, Georgia Democrats helped flip the White House and Senate in 2020. If Democrats are serious about combating voter suppression, they should set up a Fair Fight in every single state.

Perhaps the single largest step that Democrats can take to fight suppression and increase turnout is to invest in year-round organizing. In too many places, young Democratic staffers parachute in for one campaign cycle and then leave, forgoing the ability to forge the deep connections it takes to win over and help voters.

The chair of the Wisconsin Democrats credits year-round organizing for the slim wins in both Wisconsin and Georgia, and the Democratic state party in Texas is already investing in this. It gets results. Texas Democrats managed to defeat an earlier attempt to pass draconian voter suppression laws, although the governor is still trying.

For the time being, Democrats can’t do anything about the Supreme Court. But the right to vote is precious, and we can use the threat of these new laws to inspire people to hold onto what’s theirs and fight back against Republican attempts to subvert democracy.

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Moderate Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. says GOP-led restrictive voting bills ‘are about white supremacy’

Bob Casey Jr.
Sen. Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania.

  • Sen. Bob Casey Jr. criticized the raft of GOP-led voting laws being pursued across the country.
  • “We’re at a point of no return,” he said after the Supreme Court upheld two restrictive Arizona laws.
  • Casey said the GOP has concluded that it “can only win by voter suppression bills.”
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Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania on Saturday blasted the Republican Party for endorsing restrictive voting bills across the country, describing the push for such legislation as forms of “white supremacy.”

During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Velshi,” the moderate lawmaker issued a dire warning about the state of elections in the US, just days after the Supreme Court upheld two restrictive voting laws in Arizona that had been challenged for violating Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Casey expressed that the Senate would likely have to alter its rules to move voting rights legislation through the chamber with 51 votes.

“We’re at a point of no return,” he said. “We’re either going to preserve our democracy, and thereby protect voter rights to preserve the democracy, or we’re not. Democrats have to stand up and get something done. I think we can do that, because it’s apparent to me that Republicans are just going to endorse these voter suppression bills.”

He added: “At its core, we should just be blunt about this, these voter suppression bills are about white supremacy.”

Casey said Republicans seemed to be working as “a one-or two-issue agenda party where they seem to be only interested in stopping [President] Joe Biden’s programs, especially on these caregiving issues and supporting voter suppression bills.”

Read more: Meet 7 BidenWorld longtime consiglieres and a couple relative newcomers who have access to exclusive White House meetings

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 6-3 to keep in place Arizona laws that toss provisional ballots filed at the wrong voting precinct and prevent third-party groups from returning mail ballots.

The former Arizona law was previously struck down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in January, with the judge ruling that it disproportionately affected Black, Latino and Indigenous voters.

Last week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a GOP-backed voting overhaul bill that would have changed election deadlines and strengthened voter identification requirements, among other measures.

During the MSNBC interview, Casey said that Republicans would continue to push similar pieces of legislation.

‘This is agenda item number one for the Republican Party,” he said. “This is going to be the norm, because Republicans have concluded that they can’t win by getting more votes. They can only win by voter suppression bills.”

Democrats have seen their legislative push for voting rights languish in recent months.

The For the People Act, the party’s marquee voting rights legislation, would end partisan gerrymandering, expand early and absentee voting, establish national standards for voter registration, and blunt voter purges, among other things.

The bill would also mandate that states offer mail-in ballots and same-day voter registration, which Republicans have long resisted in many states.

In March, the House passed the legislation in a near party-line 220-210 vote.

However, late last month, an attempt to advance the legislation failed in the Senate, with all Republicans opposed to the bill.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, an elections bill which would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, also faces a difficult path forward, with GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky opposed to the legislation.

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Chuck Schumer compared McConnell to Southern senators who fought civil rights reforms in the ’60s over GOP opposition to the voting rights bill

Chuck Schumer
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a news briefing after the weekly Senate Democratic Policy Luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 22, 2021 in Washington, DC.

  • Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday criticized Republicans for blocking a voting rights bill.
  • He compared their views to those of senators opposed to civil rights reforms in the ’60s.
  • The bill was designed to protect voting rights amid a voter suppression drive by Republicans.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In an attack on Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer compared his Republican counterpart’s opposition to a bill to protect voting rights to senators who fought against civil rights reforms in the ’60s.

Senate Republicans on Tuesday deployed the filibuster rule to block a sweeping bill Democrats say is needed to protect voting rights amid a push by GOP-controlled state legislatures to restrict access to the ballot.

McConnell outlined his opposition to the bill in a speech, saying its measures were too broad and infringed on the rights of states to decide how to conduct elections. He condemned the bill as “transparently partisan.”

In his response, Schumer compared McConnell’s position to that of senators in the 1960s who opposed federal legislation to protect civil rights and the voting rights of Black Americans.

“The Republican leader flatly stated that no matter what the states do to undermine our democracy, voter suppression laws, phony audits, partisan takeovers of local election boards, the Senate should not act,” said Schumer.

“My colleagues, my colleagues, if senators 60 years ago held that the federal government should never intervene to protect voting rights, this body would have never passed the Voting Rights Act. The Republican leader uses the language and the logic of the Southern senators in the 60s who defended states’ rights, and it is an indefensible position for any senator, any senator, let alone the minority leader to hold.”

The 1965 Voting Rights Acts and the 1964 Civil Rights Act were landmark pieces of legislation passed during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, designed to overcome racist state laws that targeted Black communities.

Republican-led legislatures in states including Georgia and Arizona have introduced a range of measures restricting access to voting as part of what they say are reforms designed to protect against voter fraud. Some Republicans have cited President Donald Trump’s groundless claims last year’s election was stolen from him in defending the reforms.

But Democrats say the voting restrictions are a thinly veiled attempt to suppress votes, particularly from Black communities who traditionally lean to the Democrats.

President Joe Biden has compared the voting restriction laws to the “Jim Crow” laws that enforced racial segregation in the South.

In his speech, Schumer said the GOP remained in the grip of Trump’s conspiracy theories.

“Donald Trump’s big lie has spread like a cancer and threatens to envelop one of America’s major political parties,” he said.

The obstruction of the voting rights bill means the way forward for Democrats is unclear. Some progressives in the party have called for Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster rule, under which at least 60 votes are needed for a bill to progress in the face of unified GOP opposition (the Senate is currently divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.)

But some moderate Democrats, including Se. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are opposed to removing the filibuster, which they say is necessary to ensure bipartisan dialogue.

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AOC slams filibuster rule after Senate Republicans block voting-rights act

AOC
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on Monday, August 24, 2020.

  • Republicans used the filibuster to block progress of Democrats’ major voting rights bill.
  • Rep. Ocasio-Cortez criticized the rule, saying it gives a small group of senators too much power.
  • She said “legislation should pass when a majority of legislators vote for it.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized filibuster rules after Senate Republicans blocked the a bill proposed by Democrats to expand voting rights.

“Call me radical, but I do not believe a minority of Senators should be able to block voting rights for millions of people,” she said on Twitter on Tuesday.

“But I guess I’m just from that far-left school of thought that legislation should pass when a majority of legislators vote for it.”

Republicans used the filibuster to block debate on the bill.

The filibuster meant that 60 votes were needed for the bill to progress, but the vote went 50-50 on party lines, meaning that Democratic Senators were unable to move forward even the support of Vice President Kamala Harris, who can cast a tie-breaking vote when the filibuster is not in play.

As Insider previously reported, the bill includes the expansion of voter rights, softens voter-ID laws, bans partisan gerrymandering in redistricting, and also includes major campaign finance reforms.

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The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case that could further gut the Voting Rights Act and its protections for minority voters

arizona voters 2020 election
People wait in line to vote at a polling place at the Scottsdale Plaza Shopping Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, on November 3, 2020.

  • The Supreme Court heard arguments in crucial Voting Rights Act cases on Tuesday. 
  • Brnovich vs. Democratic National Committee will test Section 2 of the VRA.
  • The case centers around the legality of two Arizona voting restrictions.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in key voting rights cases out of Arizona that will test the limits of a provision of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits discrimination against minorities in voting. 

In the two lawsuits, Brnovich vs. Democratic National Committee and Arizona Republican Party vs. DNC, which were consolidated for Tuesday’s arguments, the court will determine whether two Arizona voting restrictions violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 

Michael Carvin, representing the Arizona Republican Party, and Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich argued for the petitioners, with Jessica Ring Amunson representing the Arizona Secretary of State’s office and Bruce Spiva, representing the Democratic National Committee, arguing for the respondents. 

Section 2 bans “any voting standard, practice, or procedure that results in the denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.” In 1982, Congress expanded the scope of Section 2 to cover not just intentional discrimination, but cases where voting policies resulted in discriminatory impacts in the “totality of the circumstance of the local electoral process.”

This case is an important test of the Voting Rights Act, which suffered a major blow with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. In that decision, the Court struck down the coverage formula used to determine which states needed to seek approval, or preclearance, from the federal government before enacting new voting policy changes under Section 5 due to histories of discrimination.

The stakes of this decision are elevated by lawmakers in dozens of states introducing over 100 bills aimed at restricting voting in 2021 legislative sessions. Many of those bills have been filed in battleground states like Arizona, which President Joe Biden won in November by a margin of only .3% of the total votes. 

The Shelby decision rendered Section 5 unenforceable, freeing Arizona from the preclearance requirement, and leaving Section 2 as one of the most powerful tools for plaintiffs to challenge discriminatory vote-dilution schemes and voting policies. 

“We are concerned that the Court could issue a ruling which would weaken or limit Section 2,” Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Voting & Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, recently said on a call with reporters. “We simply cannot afford harm to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as we are entering a new redistricting cycle and we’ve seen a wave of restrictive voting laws introduced in state legislatures around the country.” 

Arizona voting
This Oct. 21, 2020, file photo shows election workers sorting ballots at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office in Phoenix.

The justices on the Court probed both sides on the impacts of the voting laws on minority voters and what standards they think should be applied to determine whether a law is discriminatory and wrongly denies minorities the opportunity to vote in violation of Section 2. 

Justice Elena Kagan, for example, queried lawyers representing both sides of the argument with how they would approach hypothetical voting restrictions, like a county putting all its polling places in country clubs, that are facially neutral but have a racially disparate impact. 

The conservative majority on the Court appeared inclined to let the Arizona laws in question stand, and were skeptical of Amunson and Spiva’s arguments that Arizona’s policies constituted unlawful racial discrimination under Section 2. But it is unclear if or how the justices will rule on questions of Section 2’s scope and application. 

“What concerns me is that your position will make every voting rule vulnerable to attack under Section 2 to the same extent that the out-of-precinct policy was by the 9th Circuit,” Justice Samuel Alito said to Spiva. 

The cases began in 2016, when the DNC sued Arizona under Section 2 of the VRA over two voting restrictions passed by the state legislature: a law prohibiting provisional ballots that a voter cast in the wrong voting precinct from being counted in part or in full, and another barring third-party groups from returning voters’ mail ballots to election offices, sometimes referred to as “ballot harvesting.” 

While a US District Court sided with Arizona, the 9th Circuit overturned that ruling.

The appellate court found that both laws violated Section 2 and discriminatory impacts against Black, Latino, and Native American voters in Arizona. Applying a two-part results part, the Court found that the plaintiffs proved that the laws “imposed a significant disparate burden” on minority voters, and resulted from “social and historical conditions” that fostered hostile conditions for minorities’ voting rights. 

The 9th Circuit further ruled that the ban on third-party ballot collection was enacted with discriminatory intent, citing the state’s “long history of race-based voting discrimination,” the legislature’s prior attempts to restrict ballot collection, the increase in Latino and Native American voter turnout, false claims of fraud used as a basis to pass the law, and racially polarized voting patterns in the state. 

The partisan implications of the case were clearly delineated in Tuesday’s arguments. In response to a question from Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioning the Arizona GOP’s standing in the case, Carvin said that the 9th Circuit’s decision “puts us a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” adding: “Politics is a zero-sum game. Every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretations of Section 2 hurts us.” 

Similarly, Spiva told Justice Clarence Thomas that the DNC’s standing “rests on organizational standing principles, because they have to expend resources in order to overcome the discriminatory effects of these laws.” 

Jacqueline De Léon, staff attorney at the Native American Rights Foundation, previously told Insider in November that while Native voters showed record turnout in Arizona in 2020, they still faced significant barriers to voting. 

Reservations are divided into chapter houses, or distinct communities within the reservation led by a chapter president. Chapter house boundaries, however, do not always align with the precinct boundaries set by the state, leading some voters to wrongly believe they could vote at their chapter house, a mistake that may force them to cast a provisional ballot.

Under Arizona’s out-of-precinct policy, even votes for statewide races at the top of the ticket like president, US senate, and governor, cast in the wrong precinct are not counted. 

Arizona election
The sun sets at a local polling station Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in Tucson, Ariz

Voters of color, and especially those who live on Native American reservations, also often lack traditional mailing addresses, experience unreliable mail delivery, and live further distances from ballot dropboxes and election offices than white voters. Those factors make third-party ballot collection drives critical get-out-the-vote tools for hard-to-reach voters in a state where the majority of voters cast ballots by mail, advocates argue. 

The Supreme Court hasn’t been the friendliest arena for voting rights advocates in recent years, and is poised to be even less so now with a 6-3 conservative majority. 

In addition to reversing the 9th Circuit, the Arizona attorney general, the Arizona GOP, and its allies have filed amicus briefs in the case seeking changes to how Section 2 is applied in the future.

Some of the respondents and their amici have asked the Court to further narrow Section 2’s reach, including by limiting Section 2 lawsuits to cases of intentional racial discrimination, and restricting the provision to challenge only racial gerrymandering and vote dilution, not to voting policies. 

“This case doesn’t have to approach anywhere close to the impact of the Shelby County decision if the Court does the right thing, and that’s what we’re hoping for here,” Morales-Doyle said. 

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