Protecting Voting Rights
Overview of Voting Rights
The Office of Government Relations is working to maintain momentum from the 2020 U.S. election, where the country saw considerable interest and energy on voter education, voter registration, and getting out the vote. We want to harness that energy into civic engagement in the non-election years when hugely consequential decisions are made at the state and federal level.
Right now, legislative efforts to restrict the right to vote are advancing quickly across the U.S. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, legislators in 43 states have introduced more than 250 pieces of legislation to change election administration and limit voting access. These highly restrictive and discriminatory provisions include prohibiting voting on Sundays, imposing strict voter ID requirements, and reducing or eliminating vote by mail and early voting. There are over seven times the number of such restrictive bills as compared to this time last year.
It’s not all bad news: state legislatures are also considering legislation to expand voting access and appropriately fund these systems. The 2020 U.S. election saw the highest voter turnout in over 100 years. Department of Homeland Security officials deemed the 2020 election “the most secure in our nation’s history.” At the same time, the election also highlighted areas that need further investments to alleviate the burdens placed on local election officials, to ensure elections are sufficiently funded, and that there are sufficient polling locations and resources.
On March 2, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding Arizona’s voting laws that may be in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The case – Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee – involves two Arizona laws that make it harder for voters to cast a ballot. One law requires election officials to discard ballots that are cast in the wrong precinct. The second prohibits many forms of “ballot collection” (sometimes disparagingly called ballot harvesting) where a voter gives their absentee ballot to another person, who then delivers that ballot to the election office. The Supreme Court will decide if these laws have a discriminatory impact and therefore violate section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. We can expect a decision in June.
The Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee case comes after the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted the Voting Rights Act and struck down the “pre-clearance” required for states to change their voting laws. In short, the ruling determined that the formula was almost 50 years old and needed to be updated by Congress. However, since that ruling, more than 1,000 U.S. polling places have closed – predominantly in African-American counties – and states have enacted many more voting restrictions. Critics argue this demonstrates the continued need for Voting Rights Act protections.
At the federal level, there are numerous efforts to protect voting rights. The House of Representatives recently passed H.R.1 – the For the People Act – a sweeping voting rights reform bill. Legislators and advocates are now debating how to pass this bill in the Senate. The bill has 5 main components:
1. Election administration: Expand voter registration and voting access, specify how to appropriate remove voters from voter rolls
2. Redistricting: Require states to establish independent redistricting commissions to carry out congressional redistricting (states begin the redistricting process once the 2020 Census data is released, so this could have a huge impact for the coming 10 years)
3. Election Security: Investments and enhancement
4. Financial transparency: Campaign Transparency, Countering Foreign Interference, Empowering Small Donors and Related Reforms, Enforcing Campaign Finance Laws, Strengthening Campaign Contribution Limits
5. Ethics Reforms: Supreme Court Ethics Reform, Expanding Lobbyist Disclosure, FARA Reform, Recusal of Presidential Appointees, Executive Branch Ethics Reforms, Congressional Ethics Reforms, Disclosure of Presidential Tax Returns
Many legal experts and advocates applaud H.R.1 and believe it provides essential protection for our democracy, especially given the concerted efforts to undermine confidence in our elections and persistent voter suppression. There are critiques of H.R.1, certainly, including a critique from the ACLU about the impact of transparency requirements to get “dark money” out of politics.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has not yet been introduced in the current Congress, but we expect it will be. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act deals more explicitly with racial discrimination in voting and responds to the Shelby County Supreme Court decision – directly highlighting the issue of racism and discrimination in our electoral process.
President Biden recently signed an executive order on voting rights to:
– Direct federal agencies to expand access to voter registration and election information
– Direct federal agencies to assist states under the National Voter Registration Act
– Improve and modernize Vote.gov
– Increase federal employees’ access to voting
– Analyze barriers to voting for people with disabilities
– Increase voting access for active duty military and other overseas voters
– Provide voting access and education to citizens in federal custody
– Establish a Native American voting rights steering group
Episcopal Church Policy
As a Church, we have policy on most – although not all – of the issues in the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Primarily, we oppose voter suppression and encourage voting access.
General Convention Resolution 2018-D003 calls on all states to cease and desist efforts to suppress the voting rights of American Citizens. We “call on governments on all levels to create policies to enhance voter participation by, among other strategies, seeking to implement policies that will increase early voting, extend registration periods, guarantee an adequate number of voting locations, allow absentee balloting without the necessity of having an excuse, and prohibit forms of identification that restrict voter participation.”
Oppose gerrymandering: we oppose any form of partisan gerrymandering which has the same effect of racial gerrymandering. We advocate against any form of political district mapping that dilutes the votes of people of color at the statewide and national level.
Filibuster: The Episcopal Church has no policy on the filibuster (General Convention resolutions rarely weigh in on process issues or parliamentary procedures). Many make the argument that the filibuster gives the minority too much power to stop legislation from moving forward. Stacey Abrams argues that there already are exemptions to the filibuster – judicial confirmations, executive branch appointments, and budget reconciliation. Why couldn’t protection of voting rights be one of those?
What can you do on voting reform and voting rights?
Reach out to your Senators and urge them to pass the For the People Act. OGR has an action alert that urges Congress to address voting reform.
Advocate at the state and local level! H.R.1 would only address federal elections, so state election laws remain critical in ensuring voting access and election integrity, even if legislation like H.R.1 were to pass. Put pressure on state legislatures to pass voting reforms that expand voter protections and make voting easier for all Americans. The Office of Government Relations focuses on federal issues, but we are happy to connect and to give advocacy tips for state-level work.
Speak out publicly on the importance of voting rights for all. OGR can assist in writing op-eds or drafting talking points for any media interviews on voting reform.
Join other organizations and coalition efforts! A great example is Faithful Democracy.
The Office of Government Relations