With United States midterm elections scheduled for November, the struggle in Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation has left Democrats and election rights activists worried that time is running out for reforms.
“The honest to God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” US President Joe Biden told reporters earlier this month. “As long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting.”
Despite exhaustive lobbying efforts, a failed attempt by Democrats to change longstanding Senate rules and a passionate appeal from Biden, Congress has been unable to pass major bills that supporters say would increase federal protections for voting.
“The inability of Congress to pass legislation that’s updated for the 21st century is truly disappointing,” Poy Winichakul, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Al Jazeera. “We are going to see an onslaught of election law changes that will especially have severe negative impacts for voters of colour.”
Opponents argue that the legislation, which would set national standards for voting, gives the federal government too much power over local decisions.
“We don’t need these bills because we don’t need a federal election process. The states are doing a good job managing their elections,” Jessica Anderson, executive director of the conservative group Heritage Action, told Al Jazeera. “If Delaware, Joe Biden’s home state, wants to have no early voting days and Georgia wants to have 21, that’s great. That’s for the states to choose.”
Americans are divided over how to approach this basic tenet of democracy.
Conservatives say they fear fraud at the ballot box and want to ensure that elections are secure. But Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to make voting more difficult on purpose in order to disproportionately affect non-white voters. Neither side trusts the other to pursue any election reform measure in good faith.
In many battleground states, liberal and conservative activists have made voting a key issue. Several state legislatures last year passed new laws to overhaul their voting processes. In terms of ballot access, the record was mixed, according to an analysis conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University: 19 states enacted laws that made it “harder for Americans to vote”, while 25 states passed laws “with provisions that expand voting access”.
Last year, Heritage Action pledged to spend $10m on a campaign to lobby government officials on voting laws. The campaign, which focused on eight key battleground states, aimed to pass laws that require voter ID, limit the use of absentee ballots, and encourage policies to verify voter citizenship and voter rolls.
It has seen some success: after the 2020 election, states such as Georgia and Texas passed bills that made sweeping changes to their voting processes. In March 2021, Georgia passed a significant voting bill that amended rules around absentee and early voting, overhauled how votes are counted and empowered its State Election Board. It also restricted the amount of time available to apply for mail-in voting and added new ID requirements.
Georgia’s law served as a wake-up call for liberals, who saw the efforts not as a defence of voter integrity, but as a smokescreen for erecting barriers to the ballot box.
“It creates compounding and cascading effects,” Winichakul said. “Because it creates obstacles for people to vote, it puts pressures on the back end of election administrations. But it could cause longer lines, chaos and confusion.
“Even if we don’t see long lines wholesale across the state, we’re going to see them affecting Black voters, other voters of colour, people with disabilities, students and other transient populations. We’re going to see this among people who need more options for voting because they might work three jobs and don’t have time to submit their ballot during working hours now that drop boxes aren’t available 24 hours.”
The debate over these issues comes at a time when millions of Americans have become distrustful of the voting process.
Since the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump and his allies have filed dozens of unsuccessful lawsuits challenging the results. Yet, despite Trump’s ongoing ranting that the election was “rigged”, his own administration found no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the outcome. The US Supreme Court refused to hear his challenges to election results in battleground states, while meticulous recounts in Georgia and Wisconsin confirmed that Biden won.
Still, Trump’s contention that the election was stolen has burrowed into the ears of millions of Republicans. About 30 percent of Americans believe the election was stolen from Trump, including two-thirds of Republicans, according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted last September.
In a press conference earlier this month, Biden himself gave a vague and convoluted response to reporters who asked if he thought the 2022 elections would be “legitimate” without federal reforms. Biden’s spokeswoman later said the president “was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election”.
Texas also saw a fierce showdown over voting rights last year. In September, Texas passed a new voting bill that opponents say will restrict voting access, but supporters say shores up election integrity.
Among other provisions, the new law halts counties from offering drive-in voting, stops 24-hour early voting, and prohibits local election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to prospective voters. It also gives poll watchers from both parties more freedom to observe vote counting, and requires the Texas secretary of state to audit voter rolls for people who said they were not citizens when applying for a driver’s license.
The fight for ballot access has inspired Texans such as Tayhlor Coleman, a seasoned Democratic activist working to register voters in the state while travelling and living full-time in a cargo van converted for camping. Texas laws prohibit people from registering new voters without approval from the relevant county, Coleman said, so she is working to become a sanctioned registrar in all of the state’s 254 counties.
“You cannot register at the statewide level. You have to go to each individual county and present to that county in person,” Coleman said. “There should not be this many obstacles between Americans and their fellow citizens to help them register to vote.”
It is a project that could take months, but she hopes it will prove fruitful when midterm season arrives this fall: “I think it’s really hard for people to visualise the impact of these sorts of laws, no matter how benign they might read on paper … on everyday Americans.”
Indeed, the midterms will serve as a test case for how the recent state changes will play out while indicating whether the issue will motivate voters in another contentious election season.
“There’s a groundswell of support for voting rights, because these issues are so top of mind. It’s a really impressive organising effort,” Winichakul said. “But it’s just going to have to happen 100-fold as this year ramps up.”