Leader McConnell, let us vote
John Sarbanes and Vanita Gupta, THE HILL (OP-ED)
The day after our nation commemorated the 54th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., the House of Representatives passed H.R.1, the For the People Act, to strengthen voting rights, take big money out of politics, and clean up corruption on Capitol Hill.
Before the vote on March 8, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a foot soldier for civil rights who marched in Selma, implored lawmakers to recognize their moral responsibility to restore access to democracy. He asked his colleagues, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
The answer came in the form of a party-line vote. Not a single Republican supported the historic legislation.
Democracy is foundational to America’s highest values. From its base grow equity and justice, and freedom and opportunity. But when people’s voices are blocked from civic participation — as they increasingly are today — our hard-won progress becomes vulnerable.
Americans are hungry for change. State by state, voters cast their ballots last November for measures like automatic voter registration, redistricting reform, and rights restoration for formerly incarcerated people. The For the People Act would implement those changes nationwide. It would also create a small donor matching system for funding campaigns, which would empower everyday Americans and lift up the historic number of candidates who have pledged to take no corporate PAC money.
Recently, the entire Senate Democratic Caucus co-sponsored and introduced a companion bill of the For the People Act. The broad show of support is commendable. But all elected officials, no matter their political leaning, must ensure the people they represent have a voice in our democracy.
Instead of bringing the bill to a vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears determined to derail efforts to fix our democracy and expand the franchise. To aid his crusade against the For the People Act, he is misleading the public about the bill’s substance.
In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell called the For the People Act a “power grab” by Democrats. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rightly clarified: It is a power grab for the people.) He accused his counterparts of stifling free speech and undermining privacy. And he shrugged off action on the Senate floor, telling a reporter, “I get to decide what we vote on.”
It is clear McConnell fears any threat to the kind of system he has built — one dependent on a diminished electorate where everyday people are disenfranchised while powerful, freewheeling special interests pull too many of the strings. He has dangerously shifted the balance of power at the expense of the American people.
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and until recently, strengthening voting rights was nonpolitical. The VRA has been reauthorized on four occasions, each time under a Republican president. Most recently in 2006, the Senate voted unanimously to reauthorize the law for 25 years. McConnell was among the senators who voted in support of its reauthorization.
The major turning point came in 2013, after the Supreme Court decided Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act that for decades blocked discriminatory voting practices. Free to revive Jim Crow-era strategies, states quickly moved to pass a deluge of anti-voting laws and shrink the electorate.
In the last general and midterm election cycles, people of color and others historically cut out of the political process faced barriers to voting. In fact, more than 1 million Americans who tried to vote in 2016 were not able to because of problems including long lines, strict voter ID laws, and registration challenges.
Restricted access to the vote is part of our shameful past. But that story is not confined to historical black and white photos. We face active voter suppression today, particularly as the federal government retreats from its responsibility to enforce civil rights and voter protections.
When our democracy is closed to the people, we cannot make progress on civil and human rights issues like immigration, affordable health care, educational equity, and economic security. Similarly, without government accountability and transparency, the people lose their power to ensure lawmakers represent their interests. The government in turn loses legitimacy among the people. When our democracy is in peril, so too are our civil rights.
The For the People Act offers a transformative vision for democracy that puts the American people and our shared values first. Importantly, it also commits to restoring the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Rep. Lewis was beaten and bloodied as he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma for daring to expand access to our political process. Fifty-four years later, we are again at a crossroads — and not one of politics, but of what is right and just.
Leader McConnell, let the senators vote.