Voting Rights: How the Democrats’ latest push could work — and why it might not

It’s 2022, and with Build Back Better blocked, Democrats have now turned their attention to voting rights, hoping they can build something there that can actually get passed. It starts in the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he will bring up two bills beginning this month. Yahoo News Chief National Correspondent Jon Ward explains what’s in the Freedom to Vote and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement acts and why some say Democrats are better off focusing on a narrower set of reforms with Republican support.

Video Transcript

JON WARD: It's 2022. And with Build Back Better blocked in Congress, Democrats have now turned their attention to voting rights.

- The Build Back Better bill, that massive piece of legislation, pushed to the side by the Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who says we're going to focus on voting rights.

JON WARD: Hoping they can build something there that can actually get passed.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: This is our moment to step in. This is what happened when we had civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

JON WARD: It starts in the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he will bring up two bills beginning this month. First, there is the Freedom to Vote Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that would, among other things, expand early voting, expand voting by mail, create a national standard for voter ID, enact automatic voter registration, ban partisan gerrymandering, impose disclosure requirements on big donors, and make Election Day a national holiday.

Then there's the John Lewis Act, which would bolster parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that have been weakened by recent Supreme Court decisions. In particular, court decisions have removed the need for states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear voting changes with the Justice Department. And another court decision has allowed states to enact restrictions on voting in the name of stopping voter fraud even if that fraud has not yet occurred. Republicans in the Senate don't support either of those bills.

MITCH MCCONNELL: This fake outrage is just a predicate for Washington Democrats to do something they have sought to do literally for years-- appoint themselves a nationwide board of elections on steroids.

JON WARD: The other option for Democrats is to do away with or change filibuster rules, which would allow them to pass bills with a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. But Democrats don't have enough votes, even from their own side, to do this.

JOE MANCHIN: A rules change that would create a nuclear option, it's very, very difficult. It's a heavy lift.

JON WARD: So voting experts who are concerned that the United States is heading for another constitutional crisis and potential political violence are warning that Democrats need to shift gears and prioritize a more narrow set of reforms. As it happens, there is a move within the Senate at this moment by a bipartisan group of senators to focus on one issue in particular-- the Electoral Count Act of 1887. GOP Senator Susan Collins convened a group of Republicans and Democrats this past week to talk about clarifying a piece of the law that former President Trump and his allies tried to exploit in their attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Top Democrats, however, are resistant so far to a smaller effort. They want to go for a big bill that will invigorate their base. And they argue that the broader legislation is needed to protect against efforts by Republicans to throw out legal votes, as they attempted to do in 2020.

CHUCK SCHUMER: I think that what they're trying to do is try to substitute that for the very needed reforms that we have urged, undoing what the state legislatures are doing throughout the country.

JON WARD: Moderate voices, who have criticized Republicans for their attempts to subvert democracy, are now calling on Democrats to trim their sails and put country above party. "New York Times" columnist David Brooks wrote, "the right response would be do the unsexy work at the local level where things are in flux, pass the parts of the Freedom to Vote Act that are germane, like the protections for elections officials against partisan removal and measures to limit purging voter rolls, reform the Electoral Count Act to prevent Congress from derailing election certifications." Brooks concluded "when your house is on fire, drop what you were doing and put it out."