Leahy: Voting rights, how the nation can take a cue from Vermont

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Leahy: Voting rights, how the nation can take a cue from Vermont

Mon, 10/04/2021 - 2:27pm -- tim

Restoring The Voting Rights Act Is Foundational To Our Democracy

by Patrick Leahy As is often the way, Vermont boasts some of the most forward-leaning voter access laws in the country. Early voting, mail-in voting, and more are all initiatives that the state has undertaken to expand to all eligible voters their constitutional right to cast a ballot and lend their voice to their democracy.  Vermont should be a model for states across the country. Unfortunately, voter suppression is the wave of the moment. It is an affront to democracy.

A pair of decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court – first in 2013’s Shelby County case, and earlier this year in Brnovich – have threatened one of the bedrock voting laws in our country, the historic, landmark Voting Rights Act.  The result of decades of advocacy from such icons as the late Congressman John Lewis, the Voting Rights Act allowed the federal government to step in and prevent blatantly discriminatory voting laws, primarily enacted in southern states, from becoming barriers to the ballot box.  It was a culmination of advocacy throughout the Civil Rights Movement, and became a cornerstone of our election laws.  In its decisions, the Supreme Court challenged Congress to remedy its opinions through legislative action.  Now, we have that chance.

This week I will join with other senators to introduce the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore the clear will of Congress in passing the original Voting Rights Act.  This legislation would address the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision by restoring the Justice Department’s preclearance powers to help prevent states from enacting discriminatory voting changes.  And our intent is to limit the harms caused by the Supreme Court’s Brnovich decision by enshrining a private right of action and clear factors based on which voters can bring lawsuits against attempts to disenfranchise them.  Our legislation would also require states to notify the public about changes to voting procedures, provide protections for poll workers against threats of violence, and systematically improve voting conditions for Native American voters, among other provisions. 

The central purpose of this legislation is to ensure that the Department of Justice has the tools it needs to protect the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of party, race, or background.  And this purpose – a calling higher than party or politics – has always enjoyed wide bipartisan support. 

Protecting the right to vote has long been bipartisan.  I stood alongside my dear friend, himself a soldier in the war against voter oppression, John Lewis, when we reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006.  And it was with a heavy – but hopeful – heart that I reintroduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act last year to bear his name.  Today, I again introduce that legislation, updated to address both Shelby County and Brnovich.  I hope it receives the same bipartisan support that has been the hallmark of the Voting Rights Act since its first enactment, over 55 years ago.

Now is the time for every American – regardless of party, regardless of politics – to stand in defense of our democracy.  To stand for what is right, and to stand with the clear arc of history – the arc that bends towards justice, towards inclusion, towards equality.  With one loud and clear voice, we should reject erosions of voter protections.  And we should do so now.

Vermonters, and all Americans, are looking to Washington for action.  This debate is not about one party or another.  It is a simple matter of rising to the challenge, of meeting the demands of our Constitution, and of doing the right thing.  On that, there should be no partisan divide.  On that, we should speak as one America.

[Patrick Leahy is Vermont’s senior United States Senator. The current Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a former Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Senate’s President Pro Tem, he is the lead author of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.]