When President Joe Biden took office two weeks after the attempted coup on January 6, 2021, his inaugural address spoke about the deep divides within the political landscape, the importance of preserving democracy, and the sanctity of the electoral process. President Biden said that voting rights were the most important domestic policy issue. His administration promised the American people—specifically the Black and Indigenous Communities of Color who elected him—that he would restore confidence in the ballot box.
If voting rights are truly the most important domestic issue—as President Biden said—the question should be when these voting rights bills will pass, not if.
For a moment, it seemed the President and Congress would fulfill that promise. The House of Representatives quickly passed H.R. 1, aptly named the For the People Act. The bill aimed to expand voter registration and poll accessibility while also reforming campaign financing. It was followed by H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA). This important piece of legislation would strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by reinstating the preclearance process for states that have historically suppressed voting access. After the House passed both bills in March and September, respectively, many human and civil rights organizations hoped the Senate would quickly follow suit.
However, as 2021 ended, it became clear that parliamentary procedure would threaten voting rights as it did during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Though the bills were brought to a vote several times, they failed to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster, end debate, and move to final passage.
Summer and autumn passed without a firm timetable for advancing these bills to the president’s desk. By November, it became clear that the Senate would not be able to move these bills forward without reform to the filibuster. Things remained stuck until mid-December when Sen. Raphael Warnock (GA) gave a passionate speech on the Senate floor, urging both Democrats and Republicans to lift the filibuster rule to safeguard democracy.
This ask was not unprecedented. Earlier that same month, Democrats and Republicans agreed to lift the filibuster to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and avoid economic collapse.
It will take all of us working together to ensure the Freedom to Vote Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act are passed into law.
One day after Sen. Warnock spoke to the urgent need for action on the Senate floor, a dramatic shift occurred in the Democratic Party. Suddenly—a week before Christmas—voting rights was again being discussed as a top priority. Support began to build. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) expressed openness to reforming the filibuster. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) said she supported both the Freedom to Vote Act (S. 2747) and the VRAA. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer began meeting with the Biden Administration on the issue. With two weeks left in 2021, there was momentum building around the bills.
As we begin 2022, the approaching midterm elections and the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capital loom large. In Sen. Warnock’s native Georgia, the family of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has stated that there should be no MLK Day this year without movement on voting rights. Their support underscores the urgency of this issue.
If voting rights are truly the most important domestic issue—as President Biden said—the question should be when these will pass, not if. With Sen. Schumer planning to bring these bills up for a vote before MLK Day, only time will tell. It will take all of us working together to ensure the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are passed into law.