Senate Democrats’ Push to Expand Voting Rights

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is unveiling a proposal to combat disenfranchisement, which he says is one of the “three biggest issues” the country faces going into 2020.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Thursday marks the 54th anniversary of the protest that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. On “Bloody Sunday,” civil-rights demonstrators, including current Georgia Representative John Lewis, attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Highway 80 on their march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. They were met with tear gas, and with armed state police viciously assaulting the marchers—including the children among them. But the images from the protest thawed something in the national conscience. Months after the mass assault, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the VRA into law, beginning what some lawmakers thought would be the end of the disenfranchisement of people of color.

Nowadays people know better. Many forms of lawful and unlawful disenfranchisement have persisted through the decades, and although black turnout has surged at several points in recent history, it has rarely matched white turnout. Since the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013 defanged the VRA, those forms of disenfranchisement have become more prevalent, providing an edge to politicians who run on mostly white votes—and with Democrats who would seek to court voters of color ever on the defensive. But with a flurry of activity over the past week, party leadership, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, is signaling that voting rights are a critical issue for Democrats, one that requires an offensive response.

On Thursday, Schumer is unveiling a list of voting-rights-related priorities that represents one of the most ambitious Democratic proposals on the issue since the VRA itself. “We have been for it, but not given it a high-enough priority or put enough passion into it,” Schumer told me in an interview earlier this week. “And that’s gonna change.” Those new priorities include restoring and strengthening the VRA’s now-defunct preclearance mechanism, which mandates federal approval of election laws in districts known to disenfranchise voters of color; a national, automatic voter-registration law; and a move to give Washington, D.C., statehood.

Those priorities are a distillation of major voting-rights initiatives that have been introduced in the House and Senate recently. Last week, Schumer spoke in favor of the new Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced by Terri Sewell of Alabama in the House and Patrick Leahy of Vermont in the Senate. It would establish new federal preclearance of election laws in all districts and states that commit more than 15 voting-rights violations over a 25-year span. Several senators will soon reintroduce the Automatic Voter Registration Act, legislation that would require states to register people who interact with federally funded agencies, including welfare. Schumer co-sponsored a D.C.-statehood bill introduced in the Senate last month. And automatic voter registration and D.C. statehood are both key elements of H.R. 1, a sweeping set of good-governance and voting-rights reforms introduced earlier this year in the House.

Schumer told me that he sees voting rights as a top issue on the 2020 campaign trail, one that would be critical to winning the presidency and to winning enough votes in Congress to pass the Democrats’ agenda. “To me, the three biggest issues that we face as a country are climate change, disparity of income and the erosion of the middle class, and voting,” the New York senator said. “That’s one of the things we’re going to campaign on in 2020.”

Here’s more from our interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vann R. Newkirk II: So let’s talk about voting rights.

Chuck Schumer: I am passionate about this issue. Voting is the bedrock of our democracy. It’s what people die for. Whether it’s on the Selma bridge or it’s in our wars, people die for the right to vote. And it is what has distinguished America from any other place. It’s a fundamental thing, and when Republicans have made a campaign to try and take it away, it infuriates me. Just totally infuriates me.

To me, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions—I didn’t vote for [Chief Justice John] Roberts, but you know, he fooled a lot of people who thought he’s gonna call balls and strikes, and then he does Shelby. When he [wrote the Court’s opinion in] Shelby, he said, “Oh, we don’t have racism anymore. We don’t have bigotry anymore. We don’t need preclearance.” And within one year, 19 states limited voting rights.

Newkirk: Like my home state of North Carolina.

Schumer: In North Carolina, they actually found emails saying this will take away the right of blacks to vote. And, of course, it was disgusting and bigoted. I’ve been in close quarters with Justice Roberts—I’m not allowed to talk to him about any decisions, but I’m so tempted to tell him what I think of that case. I restrain myself.

I believe this is a fundamental bedrock of democracy. The Republicans have made a campaign to limit the right to vote, particularly of African Americans and other people of color, students, and poor people. And it’s an erosion of our democracy. It’s against everything America has stood for, even in the horrible days when they didn’t allow most people to vote. So I believe that we have to start standing for voting rights.

Newkirk: How do you tackle this big issue?

Schumer: The three places we’re going to focus on are: No. 1, not only undoing the Shelby decision, but making preclearance possible for the whole country. As you know, preclearance was in a limited number of states. We would have it everywhere that the Justice Department might be able to preclear. Second, we want to do universal registration the minute any government agency touches you: Medicaid, your driver’s license, or whatever else. You’re automatically registered to vote unless you say you don’t want to be. And third, D.C. statehood. Empowering people. I’d do it for Puerto Rico too, but they’re not sure they want statehood. But D.C. has had a referendum, they want statehood, and we should have them be allowed to vote in federal elections—have congressmen, have senators, etc.

Newkirk: Why now?

Schumer: Now that we have a majority in the House, we can actually begin to start doing good things. That’s No. 1. [The Senate] can’t do everything [the House does], but we can pick our shots, and we’ll have some real leverage. Second, it’s getting worse. Because [Republicans] now control so much of the courts, and because of what Roberts did in Shelby, it’s almost free rein for these people who want to limit people’s right to vote. So that’s another reason.

I have to tell you, I don’t think Democrats have done enough on this issue over the years. We always pay lip service. But we haven’t been strong enough, passionate enough, or concerted enough to do something.

Newkirk: As unprecedented as the Shelby decision was, Roberts did give Congress a mandate to come up with a new preclearance formula to determine which states are monitored, right?

Schumer: That’s one of the things we’re gonna campaign on in 2020. Look at what Stacey Abrams did down in Georgia: make voting rights a real issue that galvanized people. And I think there’s going to be a lot more of that. I hope she runs for the Senate. If she got to the Senate, she’d be able to do more for voting rights than people have done in a long time, because she’s so smart, she’s so passionate, and she has such respect.

Newkirk: Speaking of Abrams, tell me more about her selection to be the speaker representing Democrats after the State of the Union.

Schumer: Because I admired her so much, and she did a great job. Before the speech, I said, “Donald Trump, you’re the warm-up act for Stacey.” And it proved to be true. She was better than him, got more viewers than him, and did a much better job. She’s great—she’s just incredible. And she’s got passion.

Newkirk: Say Republican senators don’t get behind your preclearance plan. What’s next?

Schumer: You know, they didn’t change their mind on health care last time. We made it an issue in the election, and it helped us take back the House and win some seats in the Senate. This will be one of the issues we campaign on.

Newkirk: And what’s your sense of how voters will respond?

Schumer: I think that from my talking to voters in my very diverse state of New York, people support making it easier to vote across the board. The only people who don’t are the Republican Party hard-liners. Not average voters, and not even average Republicans.

Newkirk: On the D.C.-statehood part of this, obviously this would help Democrats here in the Senate.

Schumer: Obviously, but that’s not my motivation. My motivation is that it’s the right thing to do, and these folks are not being represented. What’s the bumper sticker say? “Taxation without representation.” Same thing that was true during the Revolutionary War is true now in D.C. And my guess is, were D.C. not Democratic and overwhelmingly African American, Republicans might have done it years ago.

Newkirk: How do you, then—with that acknowledgment that D.C. statehood blatantly helps the Democrats—how do you sell that?

Schumer: If it’s the right thing to do, do it.