New legislation from Democratic lawmakers would provide all Americans with an affirmative right to vote and a legal process to secure that right for the first time ― a move that could counter Republican efforts around the country to restrict voting access.
Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) introduced the Right to Vote Act on Wednesday.
“This is legislation that would ensure that courts respect the right to vote as the fundamental right that it is,” Jones said. “It is the first congressional guarantee of the right to vote in federal elections. It also solves the problem that we are seeing in certain states of election subversion.”
The bill would affirm Americans’ right to vote by declaring election laws or rules that pose a “severe or discriminatory burden” to be illegitimate ― unless the jurisdiction in question can prove that its proposed law or rule furthers a governmental interest and is the “least restrictive means” of doing so.
This means states and local jurisdictions would need to provide documented evidence if they want to claim that their restriction of voter access is necessary to provide election integrity or to counter election or voter fraud.
The Right to Vote Act “will for the first time enshrine the right to vote in Federal statute and allow U.S. citizens to challenge in court any policy that makes it harder for them to participate in elections,” Ossoff said in a statement after announcing the legislation in an appearance on CNN.
Similarly, the new election subversion laws enacted by Republicans in states like Georgia, which enable partisan actors to alter vote counts and results after the fact, would need to be shown to meet a provable governmental interest and offer the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.
“Jurisdictions up until this point have gotten away with murder in terms of positing voter fraud that they are never asked to substantiate,” Jones said. His bill, if enacted, would require jurisdictions to provide such proof.
This Right to Vote Act is meant to fill the gap in voters’ ability to challenge voting restrictions, previously limited by judicial interpretations of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. It is also designed to supplement the For the People Act, a sweeping reform bill that would override many voter suppression laws by setting a national standard for voter access in federal elections.
The Right to Vote Act was first introduced by Jones in the House as an amendment to the For the People Act in May. The amendment was not agreed to in the House, so Jones sought Senate sponsors to introduce it as standalone legislation.
Jones says he is “focused on getting this passed as a standalone bill.” It is possible that it will be included in the final draft of the For the People Act that a handful of Democratic senators and representatives are working on.
The For the People Act, which passed the House in May and which Senate Republicans filibustered in June, would prevent states from limiting or not allowing early voting, vote-by-mail and same-day voter registration, among other things. But its provisions would not cover things like bans on mobile poll locations or bans on local jurisdictions from accepting funds from nonpartisan outside sources to help run their elections.
The For the People Act “doesn’t include any catch-all provision applicable to all voting limits ― including ones Congress hasn’t yet imagined,” Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard law professor and election law expert, wrote at Democracy Docket in May. “The Act thus leaves open the door to novel barriers erected by wily vote suppressors.”
The Right to Vote Act, which at the time took the form of Jones’ amendment, “would reach those policies,” Stephanopoulos wrote.
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