By Senator Patrick Leahy
Last week I spoke on the floor reflecting on the unthinkable events of January 6, 2021, when a violent mob attempted to snuff out one of our democracy’s most sacred traditions: the peaceful transition of power. That mob’s attack on our nation’s Capitol was fueled by the former president’s “big lie,” the utterly false alternate reality that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election through widespread fraud. But the January 6 insurrection, as nightmarish as it was, was not the only thing spawned by the “big lie.”
Inspired by the former president’s baseless conspiracy theory, dozens of states have passed new laws suppressing voters and making it easier for partisan officials to overturn the will of their constituents. These have been billed as “election integrity” or “election security” laws. Even George Orwell would be impressed by the brazen euphemisms. Disenfranchising tens of thousands of minority voters does nothing to improve the integrity of our elections. And empowering partisan actors to disqualify ballots and ignore the popular will makes our elections more insecure. A record number of these voter suppression laws are being considered and enacted as we head toward a major midterm election that will shape the direction of our country.
Many of these laws would not see the light of day if the Department of Justice still possessed its preclearance powers under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, the Supreme Court unwisely decided to gut the Justice Department’s preclearance powers in the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013. Adding insult to injury, the Supreme Court toppled another critical pillar of the Voting Rights Act in the 2021 Brnovich decision, even further limiting the federal government’s tools to combat voter suppression. With a green light from our nation’s highest court and constant prodding from a man who refuses to accept reality, partisan state actors have breathed new life into the “big lie.” Not by breaking laws, as the January 6 mob did, but by making them.
Now, I happen to have a bipartisan bill to restore the Justice Department’s powers to oversee and prevent states from enacting discriminatory voting laws: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. I worked very hard to craft a compromise bill that has garnered Republican support here in Senate. So, it was truly a low point when Republicans recently refused to even allow debate on my bipartisan legislation.
Isn’t that the whole point of being a Senator? To debate and vote on bills? How can you justify telling your constituents that you refuse to allow even debate on a voting rights bill with a 56-year-record of bipartisanship? Are we that afraid to simply do our jobs?
It bears repeating but the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would simply restore and update provisions of the Voting Rights Act that have been overwhelmingly supported by both parties throughout the law’s history. The Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized by large bipartisan majorities in Congress five times, and proudly signed into law by Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush. Not exactly what you’d call a liberal trio of presidents. The most recent VRA reauthorization in 2006 was a 98 to 0 vote in the Senate. A number of Senators still serving today, both Republican and Democrat, voted to support that legislation. The compromise bill I have crafted with Senator Murkowski follows the very same blueprint of these other bipartisan efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but it would be a tragedy if Senators have completely sacrificed our sense of common purpose at the altar of partisanship. We used to believe that protecting our right to vote – the very right that gives democracy its name – is bigger than party or politics. We used to believe that a system of self-government – a government of, by and for the people – is one that is worth preserving for generations to come. And we used to believe, regardless of party, that government exists to serve the will of the people – not the other way around.
I sincerely hope that we still believe those things. The only way to prove it is through our actions. I don’t know what the next few weeks will have in store. But if we have an opportunity to consider the bipartisan John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, I hope that my Republican friends will at least have the courage of their convictions and allow for a vote on it. If you oppose a bipartisan bill to restore a landmark voting rights law with nearly six decades of unwavering bipartisan support, then you should be willing to stand up on the Senate floor and vote against it.
I, for one, will proudly vote yes. All the tweeting and partisan posturing that seems to consume most of our energy these days will quickly be forgotten. What will be remembered for decades is what the Senate did in our democracy’s hour of peril. I hope – indeed, I pray – that the answer is not nothing.