In the wake of the tumultuous 2020 election, GOP-led states are enacting laws to tighten voter participation, Democrats in Congress seek federal voting rights legislation and New York City may decide to allow non-citizen immigrants to vote in local elections.

The impetus for laws in red states is the continuing claim by former President Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Congressional Democrats have teed up the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act and the For the People Act to combat voter suppression and reform campaign contribution practices allowed under US Supreme Court rulings, which they say has weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The New York City legislature is considering the Our City, Our Vote measure that would allow an estimated 1 million non-citizens with green cards, DACA protection or Temporary Protected Status to vote in municipal elections.

The debates over these conflicting approaches to voting rights are intense, partisan and often personal. Republicans say tighter security is needed to prevent election fraud and give voters confidence in election results. Democrats say mail-in ballots produced the largest presidential voter turnout in history and efforts to limit vote-by-mail are intended to suppress voting, especially by minorities. At another level, the debate is over maintaining political control as the nation becomes more diverse and urban and Republican voter registration declines, especially in the suburbs. 

Nowhere in the nation is the battle more visceral than Texas. Democratic lawmakers in Texas fled the state twice to deny their Republican colleagues a quorum to pass legislation requiring stricter identification requirements for absentee voters, permitting partisan poll watchers and prohibiting election officials from sending mail-in ballots to anyone who didn’t request one. A provision to ban voting on Sunday contained in earlier versions of Texas voting legislation has been dropped. GOP Governor Greg Abbott has threatened to fine and arrest Democratic legislators.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland is suing the State of Georgia over its Election Integrity Act that requires stricter ID and restricts mail-in voting. Garland claims the statute violates federal election law by inhibiting voting rights based on race. There may be similar suits filed against voting rights measures in other states. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp says the lawsuit is based on lies fomented by the Biden administration, an ironic assertion given that Georgia GOP lawmakers enacted the legislation in response to Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election.

Meanwhile, a Senate Republican filibuster has stymied efforts by congressional Democrats to pass either of their voting reform measures. Calls to end the filibuster, which has a history of use to block civil and voting rights legislation, have not gotten enough political traction, including with President Biden. There reportedly is a behind-the-scenes effort to negotiate a more targeted voting rights bill that could attract enough Republican votes to end a filibuster, but it has taken a backseat to efforts to approve physical and human infrastructure investments.

A recent op-ed was sharply critical of Democrats, including Biden, for failing to advance voting rights legislation, despite campaign pledges to make it a top priority. The writer warned Democrats could face a political backlash by black voters in the 2022 midterm elections if they don’t pass voting rights legislation this session. Criticism has come with alternatives – from mounting state initiative drives to counter restrictive voting laws to stepping up voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.

The 2022 midterm elections are more likely to be influenced by the shape of new congressional districts, as states approve redistricting plans based on the 2020 Census. After the 2020 election, Democrats hold a slim 220-212 majority in the House, with three vacancies. Thirty state legislatures are controlled by GOP majorities, while only 18 are led by Democrats and two are split. Redrawing congressional district lines to make it easier for Republicans to win seats could offset the Democratic majority, enabling the GOP to regain control of the House and block any future voting rights legislation.

The Senate is evenly divided between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Democrats control because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a vote to break a tie. In the 2022 election, 34 Senate seats will be contested, but only nine are expected to be seriously in play. Of those nine, only three are viewed as toss-ups – open seats in North Carolina and Pennsylvania currently held by Republicans and the seat held by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson who is running for re-election. An open seat in Ohio is classified as leaning Republican. Even if Senate Democrats held on to all their contested seats and captured all three open seats, they still would lack the necessary 60 votes to end a filibuster.

The move to open voting to non-citizens in New York City is intended to ensure that more than 12 percent of its residents who pay $3 billion in taxes can decide who represents them locally. “These are residents of our city who live here, work here, go to school here. They are raising families here. They are paying taxes here and they deserve to have a say in the direction of our city,” says Paul Westrick, senior manager of democracy policy for the New York Immigration Coalition. Westrick notes that half of the city’s frontline workers are immigrants.

The prospect of non-citizens voting in elections has been a flash point in many states, including Oregon when it adopted the Motor Voter Act in 2015. Critics still insist undocumented people cast ballots, even though the Secretary State says it doesn’t issue Oregon Motor Voter cards to people without proof of US citizenship and, therefore, don’t send people mail-in ballots. Oregon voters also must attest their qualifications, including citizenship, when they submit their ballot.

It may be of little consolation, but America has faced fierce fights before over voting rights. It took a Civil War and two constitutional amendments to grant voting rights to black Americans. Women were forced to fight for their suffrage. Asian Americans and Native Americans have both been disenfranchised.

The battle to win universal voting rights, in theory and in practice, came to a head on a bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965, which led President Lyndon Johnson to call on Congress to adopt the Voting Rights Act. Here is an excerpt from Johnson’s memorable and prophetic speech to Congress on March 15, 1965:

The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.

Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people.

Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.

Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application.

And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write.

For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.

Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books – and I have helped to put three of them there – can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.

In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath….

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.