When it comes to voting rights, we are in the fight of our lives. This year alone, state legislatures introduced more than 400 voter suppression bills in 49 states, the US Supreme Court dealt yet another blow to critical voting protections, and there was a violent attack on the Capitol seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The United States must renew our commitment to democracy now.
Attacks on our democracy are tragically not new. The history of democracy in this country has never been a simple story of linear progress. But since the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008, the backlash against voting rights has intensified, and each day of inaction and each new assault threatens to turn a backslide on voting rights into a free fall.
Waves of voter suppression bills hit state legislatures in 2010 and 2012. And then, in 2013, the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement. In her dissent in that case, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that the court’s decision to release states and counties with the worst records of voting discrimination from federal “preclearance” — the obligation to obtain approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court before implementing any voting changes — was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm.” And sure enough, after the decision, the downpour came. Shelby unleashed a wave of voter suppression laws unlike anything the country had seen in a generation. The ACLU has opened more than 100 voting rights investigations since Shelby, filing more than two dozen cases in 2020 alone.
Making matters worse, this summer the Supreme Court dealt another blow to the VRA. In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the court substantially weakened Section 2 of the Act — which Congress intended to be a means to eradicate racial discrimination in voting, no matter how subtle or blunt. While Section 2 remains a tool for voting rights advocates, the court has made those challenges much more difficult, potentially insulating all but the most egregious discriminatory laws and practices.
The ACLU will continue to fight this tide. We’ve challenged voter suppression bills in Georgia, Texas, and Montana, which place burdensome, unjustified, and unnecessary restrictions on voters, particularly voters of color, voters with disabilities, and other historically disenfranchised communities. We’re also working to ensure that voters are not deprived of the political power to ensure these anti-voter and other anti-civil rights laws are never adopted, by fighting against gerrymandering. We’ve already sued in Ohio and South Carolina, and we’re far from done.
But case-by-case litigation is not enough. Given these innumerable attacks on our democracy, it’s clear that a whole-of-government approach is required to protect access to the ballot box. Regrettably, earlier this month, the motion to proceed with a vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — federal voting rights legislation that would restore the VRA — failed to pass the Senate on a 50-49 vote.
This is unacceptable. Senators of both political parties must come together — now — and figure out how to work around the filibuster as an obstacle blocking consideration of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Protecting the right to vote should not be divisive — and it hasn’t always been. Not so long ago, there was a consensus in this country that voting should be easy and accessible, and that everyone should be treated fairly in the process. Beginning with the passage of VRA, this consensus gave us 45 years of progress on voting rights — from the 1982 amendments to the VRA under President Ronald Reagan, which made the VRA the strongest voting rights protections we had ever seen, to the signing of the National Voter Registration Act in 1993, to the fifth reauthorization of the VRA in 2006, under President George W. Bush, which passed 98-0 in the Senate.
At this tumultuous time in our nation’s history, we must renew our commitment to the American experiment and democracy by ensuring every of-age citizen has the right to vote. Our democracy deserves nothing less.
Sophia Lin Lakin is deputy director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project.