Last week, on the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington, 20,000 people marched shoulder-to-shoulder with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III to once again demand civil rights – particularly voting rights. Amid a wave of voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states, these exhortations that the federal government act on voting rights must be listened to. In particular, they demanded that Congress pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Here’s what the legislation says, and why students should heed civil rights leaders’ words and demand that legislators pass it by any means necessary:
Since the 2020 election, states governed by Republicans trifectas have passed law after law restricting the right to vote. Many of these laws are only possible because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder to gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Before that decision, states with a history of racial discrimination had to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before passing any new voting rights laws. The goal, in simplest terms, was to prevent states and jurisdictions from passing laws that made it harder for Black people to vote. Now that those sections of the law no longer exist, states have much freer reign to pass racist or discriminatory voting laws. Since the 2020 election – and the genesis of ex-president Donald Trump’s elaborate fiction that the election was stolen – 18 states have passed laws that limit access to the ballot box in ways that target Democrats and voters of color.
Politically-engaged GW students who are entering the electorate are far more likely to have the time and inclination to navigate onerous voting restrictions. Students are not necessarily the primary target of these laws – but we should care anyway. We are an activist student body with the capacity to do what John Lewis, the bill’s namesake, called “making good trouble” in defense of people’s basic suffrage.
The bill that bears Lewis’s name is the only way to stop these brazen efforts at voter suppression. The legislation would update the ailing Voting Rights Act of 1965 to once again allow the Justice Department to derail state-level efforts at enacting laws that suppress voting. This would be a game-changer. At the moment, the best voting rights advocates can do to stop voter suppression bills is rally popular support and hatch plans to derail parliamentary procedure. If this bill passes, the federal government will be able to enforce the right to vote – no matter what reactionary state legislators who think the 2020 election was stolen try to do about it.
But before the law can take effect to stop Republicans from suppressing people’s votes, it has to win the votes of Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Thanks to the reluctance of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to change the legislative filibuster, the bill might crash and burn just as more Republican states pass more and more laws suppressing Black and brown votes.
The filibuster is an arcane and patently ridiculous procedure that should be abolished, but if that cannot happen, one workaround is to amend it to allow voting rights laws to pass with a simple majority. Beyond that, there is no way for the Senate’s narrow Democratic majority to pass the legislation on its own. And it would be thoroughly naïve to expect Republicans to jump on board a bill that would limit their state-level counterparts’ ability to cement GOP political power.
Students at GW, by virtue of our location and our inclination toward political activism, should care about voting rights and advocate for legislation that protects people’s access to the ballot box. Beyond the important steps of calling Senators’ offices and attending protests, students should also heed the words of Sharpton and King and cast their ballots for candidates who support democracy and the right to vote every time an election appears on the calendar. At the very least, it will show support for those whose voting rights were preventably stripped away. At the very most, it will help stop anti-voting rights legislators from getting elected in the first place.
Andrew Sugrue, a senior majoring in political communication and political science, is the opinions editor.
This article appeared in the September 9, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.