As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches, democracy reforms hang in the balance 

Stephen Smith and Brady Watson | January 16, 2022 | Climate Change, Elections, Florida, Georgia

Update: On Wednesday, January 19, the Senate held a final vote on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act which was filibustered by Senate Republicans. After the bill failed to overcome the filibuster, Majority Leader Schumer attempted to amend the rules to allow the bill to pass by simple majority vote after a talking filibuster was exhausted, but that attempt also failed. With this latest action, it appears the bill is dead for this session of Congress that ends on January 3, 2023. President Biden made recent remarks about entertaining similar legislation to the Freedom to Vote Act, but it’s uncertain that a new bill proposal will come into fruition before session ends.

SACE wrote a series of blog posts last year emphasizing the importance of federal voting rights legislation, specifically the For the People Act (HR1 in the House and S1 in the Senate), and the connection between protecting our democracy and combating the climate crisis. 

Throughout our nation’s history, leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis, as well as an untold number of servicemen and women, have fought and died to protect the right to vote and uphold democratic principles for all. These democratic principles are extremely relevant in our push for climate action today. A majority of Americana citizens realize that climate change is having an impact on their lives already, and want Congress to take action on climate change now. For example, 70% of registered voters support fully transitioning the U.S. economy to clean energy by 2050, and 66% of registered voters support requiring electric utilities to produce all of their electricity from renewable energy sources by the year 2035.

Yet we remain without Congressional policies to support these necessary transitions despite their strong popular support. Allowing a small number of people in power to repeatedly undermine the will of the people is in fundamental opposition to our nation’s democratic principles. 

As we stated last year:

SACE’s primary organizational focus – advancing clean energy, electric transportation, and energy equity – relies on voting rights so that voters can elect officials who take the threat of climate change seriously and are prepared to lead us into the modern clean energy economy.  There is a long history of big-monied special interest groups setting their own policy agenda by attempting to buy political influence with lobbying and campaign contributions – a history that we can overcome by exercising our right to vote. Our ability to confront the climate crisis is therefore closely linked with the urgency of combatting attempts to undermine our democracy. To address the climate crisis, it is essential we protect our right to vote and expand – not limit – opportunities to allow all voices to be heard.

Over the last year, it has become clearer than ever that our democracy is under attack. SACE continues to advocate for the passage of federal voting rights and democracy strengthening legislation that will protect the rights of ALL American citizens to cast their ballots for the candidates they choose. Thankfully, a newly modified voting rights bill moving through Congress would address many of these issues facing our democracy. 

Since our last post, the For the People Act was again blocked by a Republican filibuster and was defeated in August of 2021. With the failure of S1 in the Senate and the repeated dismissal of filibuster reforms by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a new bill has been introduced that includes provisions supported by Manchin and the rest of the Senate Democrats, the Freedom to Vote Act.

Freedom to Vote Act Provisions 

The Freedom to Vote Act contains many of the same important provisions as the For the People Act, including:

  • Protecting and expanding the right to vote,
  • Modernizing voter registration processes,
  • Ensuring casting a ballot is not an undue burden,
  • Banning partisan gerrymandering (the process of political parties drawing district lines to benefit their own party),
  • Preventing election sabotage,
  • Promoting election security,
  • Limiting the influence of money in politics, and 
  • Empowering small donors.

It also adds protections against attempts to subvert elections by partisan officials. A few notable changes from the For the People Act include a provision that if a state chooses to require voter IDs, then it must accept a wide array of identification methods. It also would allow states to adopt independent redistricting commissions, but would not require them like the For the People Act did. The small-donor matching program that was included in the For the People Act has been changed to an opt-in program, meaning states will have to sign up for it before candidates can apply to use the funds. The “democracy credits” program, essentially small vouchers that would allow eligible voters to give to the candidate of their choice, has been expanded and could be established in any state, as opposed to the three-state pilot program proposed in the For the People Act.

Additions to the Freedom to Vote Act that were not included in the For The People Act include:

  • Several provisions focused on preventing election subversion and increasing protections for election workers,
  • Establishing Election Day a federal holiday,
  • Forbidding states from criminalizing the distribution of food and water to voters waiting in line, and
  • A mandate that no voter should have to wait in line for more than 30 minutes.

Finally, the Freedom to Vote Act expands opportunities for court challenges to anti-voter laws and partisan gerrymandering.

Unfortunately, much like the For the People Act, Republicans also filibustered this new piece of voting rights legislation in October, preventing the measure from even advancing to the floor for a debate. However, we have seen a few important recent developments that suggest the passage of democracy reforms may still be possible. 

We need pro-voting legislation in the Southeast

Recent anti-voting policy measures in the Southeast have highlighted how legislation like the Freedom to Vote Act could help ensure voters in the Southeast can register to vote and stay registered, cast a ballot without undue burden, and have their ballot counted fairly. For example:

Georgia

Massive purges of voter registrations in recent years have left many people expecting to vote, only to arrive at their polling place on Election Day finding themselves unable to cast a ballot.

Long voting lines at voting precincts during the primary elections around Georgia made national news during the 2020 elections as hopeful voters were forced to wait in line for hours in order to cast their ballots.

In 2021, the Georgia legislature passed a large anti-voter bill to make it more difficult for Georgians to make their voices heard.

And now, some election officials appointed under the authority of last year’s anti-voter bill are moving to make it harder for Georgians to vote, like in Lincoln County, where the reconstituted board of elections is proposing to close all but one voting precinct in the entire county.

Florida

In Florida, a ballot initiative was passed by nearly 65% of voters in 2018 which automatically restored the right to vote to for more than 1 million formerly incarcerated Floridians who had completed the terms of their sentences, including parole and probation, with the exception of those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. In response, the state legislature and Governor Ron Desantis passed a law prohibiting returning citizens from voting unless they pay off all legal financial obligations, even if they cannot afford to pay. 

Tennessee

In Tennessee, newly drawn Congressional district maps submitted by House Republicans split Davidson County and the city of Nashville, which tends to vote Democratic, into 3 separate Congressional districts, a clear act of partisan gerrymandering.

Recent events build momentum for the passage of voting rights legislation

The recent one-year anniversary of the January 6th insurrection served as a stark reminder of what can happen when democracy is threatened. In 2021, over 440 anti-voter bills were introduced in state legislatures around the country. 34 of these bills were passed in 19 states. Additionally, for the first time, the respected think-tank the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranked the U.S. as a “backsliding” democracy, along with autocratic states such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. 

“No celebration without legislation”

Now, as we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the importance of passing voting rights reforms seems even more timely. In fact, the family of Dr. King is calling for demonstrations demanding the Senate pass voting rights legislation on the January 17th holiday if Congress has not yet done so, with the line “no celebration without legislation coming from Martin Luther King III. 

Majority leader Chuck Schumer has also given the date of January 17 as the date he plans to move on voting rights legislation, or hold a vote to amend the filibuster if the Freedom to Vote Act is filibustered by Republicans again.

Perhaps even more importantly, President Biden recently made clear his desire the Senate amend the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation if needed during a speech in Georgia on January 11. This is the strongest support yet from the President that the Senate do whatever it takes to pass important voting rights legislation, and comes in the state that is perhaps the epicenter of the fight for democracy in the U.S. 

On Thursday, January 13, the House passed the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which combined the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Acts into a single piece of legislation, sending the bill to the Senate where a showdown on the filibuster is expected. 

Take Action

Protecting our democracy is essential to combating the climate crisis, and our Senators need to hear from us. Please consider calling your Senator using our automated line at 1-844-329-6561 and ask them to vote YES on the Freedom to Vote Act. 

We will provide updates on our blog post after the January 17 deadline. 

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has 30 years of experience affecting change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as its executive…
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