This year, there has been a furious move across the United States, propelled by rabid followers of Donald Trump, to restrict voting in future elections. Indeed, no fewer than 389 such laws have been proposed in 48 states; by mid-July, 17 states have passed 32 laws curbing voters' rights.
The ostensible rationale for these proposed laws is to protect the sanctity of the voting franchise by ensuring that the practice is restricted to those who are eligible to vote and that no one votes more than once.
Democrats have long argued that the more states restrict voting, the more non-white citizens will be denied access to the ballot box, something Republicans deny. This is why the issue continues to be one inextricably tied to race.
Successful challenges to the guarantee of the voting right have taken place in "red" states where Trump is very popular. The most newsworthy, and volatile, state-based voting-rights tussle is in Texas, where Democratic lawmakers have twice left the state to block consideration of a new state law restricting the rights of voters (in the Texas legislature, a two-thirds majority of members constitutes a quorum, which
is required to conduct official business).
Texas already has very restrictive voting laws: Texans may not register to vote online, and mail-in voting, which is permitted across the country, is limited to senior citizens, disabled persons and very few others.
Efforts to make it harder to vote can be beaten back, however, if Congress passes a new voting rights act, as it did in 1965, to once again fine-tune the 15th amendment to the Constitution, which simply states: "The right of citizens of the US to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the US or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude."
It is important to note that, while constitutional amendments supersede state laws, national laws usually do not. This is because the Constitution grants powers to the individual states to pass their own laws involving matters not specifically assigned to the national government. So, to block limitations on voting rights in a given state, an amendment to the Constitution, or a national law deemed constitutional by the US Supreme Court, is needed.
Biden has lent his support to a Democratic proposal, the For the People Act, which would strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act permitting federal intervention in any state where voters — most notably minority voters — experience discrimination. The new bill would expand voter access while updating existing law. If passed and upheld by the Supreme Court, where Republicans surely would challenge its constitutionality, the new law would invalidate most state-level voting restrictions.
The measure passed in the House of Representatives on a party-line vote in March, but in June it was stalled by a 50-50 vote in the Senate. Republican senators filibustered the bill, and under current Senate rules it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster — unlimited debate intended to block a measure — by invoking "cloture", which means closing debate.
Without a filibuster, the bill would enjoy smooth sailing, as the tie vote would be broken by the vice-president (formally the president of the Senate), Kamala Harris, who is a strong proponent of the measure.
The problem Democrats face is that they cannot convince two of their members in the Senate to vote for a simple rule change to exclude measures involving voting rights from being subject to filibusters, as already has been done with all federal judicial nominations. Still, this is their best chance of passing the For the People Act.
Interparty fighting over voting began long before Trump ran for office and will continue after he exits politics. Democrats have for several decades promoted laws making it easier for people to register to vote and cast votes, such as the motor-voter law, which allows people to register to vote at a state's department of motor vehicles. At the same time, Republicans have consistently resisted these sorts of expansions of the voting franchise.
The sides taken by the parties make perfect sense when one considers the nation's demographics.
Broadly speaking, Democrats tend to be younger and less affluent, and less likely to be white, than Republicans. Age, wealth and whiteness correlate with voter turnout — so increasing overall turnout rates stands to benefit the party with lower turnout at a given time.
Republicans, already enjoying a high turnout rate, therefore have less to gain than Democrats by boosting turnout levels. Apart from partisan politics, though, is this simple truth: the right to vote should not depend on one's age, income level, race, or status in society.
The importance of preserving and enhancing the right of citizens to exercise the right to vote cannot be overstated; it is the most basic democratic right. This is why so many citizens and leaders worldwide are fixated on America's current voting crisis.
The writer is a professor at HELP University