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By Elijah McKee

Photo, left by Rebecca Jefferis Williamson:  Voter casts ballot at San Diego Register of Voters

January 26, 2022 (San Diego) — With year one of the Biden Administration completed and the 2022 midterm elections on the horizon, Congress’s pivotal tug-of-war over federal voting rights legislation continues to escalate.


In January 19 in the Senate, Republicans blocked the Democrats’ attempt at passing both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The legislation — which was also blocked several times in 2021 — sought to strengthen the protections of voters in light of many recent state laws that suppress voting rights. 


Such laws have been levied across the nation in the wake of the 2020 Presidential election and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently warned, “Our voting rights – and our democracy – are on the line.”

The protective legislation would have established a federal holiday on Election Day, mail-in voting, early voting, and nationwide ballot drop boxes as features of the electoral process. The pair of bills also would have addressed gerrymandering, the biased drawing of districts to favor a particular party. 


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer attempted to push the voting rights acts through by proposing to remove the Senate filibuster rule that requires a 60-vote majority to pass a bill. In the current Senate, which is split 50-50, this maneuver would have allowed the legislation a fighting chance. Importantly, the filibuster rule faces opposition for its history beyond voting rights laws as well, dating back to Jim Crow era blockades to civil rights. 


Yet Schumer and President Biden alike faced difficulty in uniting the Democratic Party behind them in this effort. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona staunchly swung the vote in favor of upholding the filibuster, effectively killing the voting rights acts in their current form. The legislation will likely be reformed and tested on the Senate floor yet again in the coming months. 


East County representatives divided on voting rights bills


The two voting rights packages churned the Senate into what Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley called, “The closest thing we have seen to a Senate debate in 15 years,” according to the New York TImes. However, the legislation was able to successfully pass through the House of Representatives before the Senate eventually blocked it. 


Photos, left, by Miriam Raftery: Representatives Darrell Issa and Sara Jacobs in El Cajon


Indeed, some felt that getting the bills through to a Senate vote in and of itself was a noteworthy occasion, given the legislation’s hindered past. 


Congresswoman Sara Jacobs (D-CA-53), a Democrat who represents much of East County, contributed her vote as part of the effort’s short-lived success.


In her press release, she stated, “If we are not vigilant in protecting rights and strengthening our democratic institutions, they will be eroded. It’s happening right now.”

Her colleague, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA-50) who represents a large portion of East County as well, took the opposite stance and voted no on the bills. 

In his press release, he stated, “The nation should understand that Biden and the Democrats are trying to stop the voters from having their rightful say because they know a fair election will be a disaster for them in November.”


These two standpoints are clearly conflicting, and are indicative of the partisan divide in Congress and the nation. Protections for voters are on the table, yet both sides accuse the other of suppressing voting rights. 


Given these contradictions within the discourse of public officials, how can people know where the genuine risk to voters and our democracy lies?


One tried and true line of sight is to look at the record of voting legislation. Doing so makes clear that the blocked legislation in the Senate last week was a blow for the American people — and not because a Democrat or a Republican said so. 


Voter suppression escalates after 2020 election 


According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting between January 1, 2021, and December 7, 2021. Notably, passed in Georgia was the Election Integrity Act of 2021, or S.B. 202, which went so far as to criminalize poll workers giving water to voters waiting in line. 


Photo, right: Voters wait in line at polling place; CC by NC via Bing


While the surge is sudden and connected to what some call “The Big Lie” that Trump won the 2020 election, the new laws only add to the stack of suppressive policies that have hurt voters throughout history. 

The current laws restrict access to the ballot box from multiple angles, be it voter registration and identification, mail-in voting, early voting, and district mapping. They come attached to claims of voter fraud and debates over the 2020 election that remain unfounded. Over 60 judges found no fraud in the 2020 presidential election, including several judges appointed by Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the Senate committee investigating the January 6 attacks continues to subpoena those connected to the Trump inner circle, such as advisors Rudy Giuliani and Boris Epshteyn. The committee has found evidence of an alternate elector plot in which fake pro-Trump electors submitted votes to Congress, and a draft plan to seize voting machines, according to CNN and The Hill. 


The committee’s investigations aside, restrictive voting laws hurt democracy and everyone within it — but they disproportionately harm people of color and indigenous voters in this country. 


Photos, left: January 6 insurrection; screenshots via C-Span


“The nationwide assault on voting rights, especially the voting rights of communities of color, requires federal action,” affirmed Representative Jacobs. 


According to the ACLU, counties with more minorities have fewer polling places to support their vote, as do those living on reservation land. However, people of color also have a harder time getting leave from work to vote; since Election Day is not yet a federal holiday, many struggle to cast their vote even if there is a polling place a mile away. 


The recently stymied Freedom to Vote Act would have protected and expanded access in each of these areas. In addition, the update to the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would have restored the “pre-clearance” component of the original 1965 law, which required states with histories of voter suppression to obtain federal approval before changing their voting policies. 


Protecting democracy


Yet at this moment, the fact that suppressive laws were passed by Republicans in red states and protective bills were introduced by Democrats is a rallying cry that may obscure the very real threat to democracy if Americans are denied their rights to vote. 


As journalist Barton Gellman said on a recent webinar hosted by the University of California Irvine Law Center, “Trump is actually in a better position, paradoxically — now that he’s not the President — to subvert the next election.” 


Photo, right:  Voting rights advocates; CC via Bing


Gellman authored the December cover story of The Atlantic titled, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.” He discussed with the panel the reality that what Trump could not do as President due to the checks of other governmental bodies like the Pentagon, he could very well accomplish this time around through smaller-scale GOP efforts to change the rules around voting. 

Margaret Sullivan, current Washington Post columnist and former public editor of the New York Times, was also a panelist. She grappled with how to best report on the issue of voting and elections right now. 


“If we can think about fairness and accuracy as the North Star, rather than this performative neutrality,” she said, “I think that gets us a little farther down the road. We want to be fair to all parties but we want to be fair to the audience, the reader, the news consumer — also known as the American citizen.”

As the next cycle of federal elections approaches, the news media must choose to what extent they place protecting democracy within their mandate as a public institution, and to what extent they play both sides on the traditional airs of objectivity. 


Either way, it is evident that this is not the last time voting civil rights in this country will be on the chopping block before Congress. 

Photo, left:  Masked voters during pandemic protest long lines; CC by NC-ND via Bing

To register to vote in San Diego County, click here, to find out where to vote, click here, and for more information on how to protect your voice, visit

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