Imagine it’s November 2020, and you are 59-year-old Laura Roundine, living on tribal lands in Montana. Days before the election, you’re home-bound after open heart surgery. The reservation has no at-home mail delivery.
Your right to vote is saved by Renee LaPlante, a Blackfeet community organizer. She drives your ballot to a distant election office as part of her job.
In 2021, that no longer works. Montana Republicans’ new voter-suppression law forbids such delivery of ballots.
These barriers to voting on reservations are part of a larger Republican power grab. In 2018, the Democratic senator Jon Tester carried seven out of eight Montana counties containing the headquarters of a federally recognized Native American tribe. He won the state by a single point.
The constitution’s elections clause points the way to protecting Laura Roundine and millions of other voters in the 18 conservative states with new state laws making it harder to vote. The clause gives Congress authority to override such measures in federal elections.
On 14 September, Senator Joe Manchin and colleagues introduced the new Freedom to Vote Act. It rivals the 1965 Voting Rights Act as the greatest expansion of ballot access in our history.
If the bill is adopted, 16-year-olds applying for a driver’s license will be automatically registered to vote at 18. That is huge. Similarly, the act guarantees ballot access in federal elections for citizens who were once imprisoned.
As a result, 2022 could be the first time a man convicted 20 years ago, at age 18, for selling a bag of marijuana in Birmingham will be able to vote. Alabama is one of 13 states that enacted Jim Crow statutes from 1865 to 1880 disenfranchising former convicts with the aim of keeping black people from the polls. In Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama and Wyoming, more than one in seven African Americans are without a right to vote.
The Freedom to Vote Act will transform voting in America. For in-person voters, 15 days of early voting are guaranteed. Election day becomes a holiday. The bill makes it a felony to communicate election lies or to interfere with citizens’ access to the polls.
Meanwhile, absentee voting will become available universally. States such as Georgia have been reducing the number of drop-box locations, but the bill will set a floor on absentee ballot drop-boxes, more than tripling the number of locations in counties in and around Atlanta – where 51% of the population is black. And to help voters like Laura Roundine, the act allows tribes to designate local buildings where anyone can drop off a ballot.
The bill also helps level the campaign finance playing field. It requires disclosures of “dark money” and creates an option for states to implement “small donor” funding for candidates who choose it, with a sixfold match for contributions under $200.
There are curbs on gerrymandering and on “fraudits” like the one currently under way in Arizona.
To combat Republicans’ attempts to manipulate election results in states such as Georgia by imposing partisan vote-counters, the act allows removals of election officials only for misconduct and gives them a right to sue for wrongful removal. As Tom Stoppard, the Czech-born playwright who escaped from Nazism, once put it: “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.”
The right to vote protects all our other freedoms. Electing responsible public officials helps to free us from Covid-19, to reduce child poverty, to expand infrastructure, to ensure a living wage. The 2020 election of two Georgia senators in January 2021 allowed the Senate to pass bills giving families $1,400 in pandemic relief checks, expanding unemployment payments, and creating temporary protections from eviction.
What was the main compromise that Senator Manchin engineered to obtain Republican support? States that already required voters to validate their identities may continue to do so. But now a utility bill, bank statement or school ID will be accepted as ID – rather than only a driver’s license, which some voters don’t have. That is progress.
Because Manchin is sponsoring the new Senate compromise, it has the best chance of any bill to secure his critical swing vote to revise Senate filibuster rules. Multiple pathways are on the table, including restoring the “talking filibuster”. If senior senators must stand and deliver for hours, a filibuster would be short-lived.
Ultimately, passage of the bill depends on the people. A 15 September poll by ALG Research shows that a whopping 72% of the American public supports policies in the Freedom to Vote Act. Citizens should write, email and phone their representatives in support.
As Howard Zinn, the activist and the author of the bestselling People’s History of the United States, put it: “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can quietly become a power no government can suppress, a power that can transform the world.”
Our freedom depends on exercising that power now.