What does this mean for voting rights?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 11 minutes.
The latest on the voting rights fight — one of the most consequential stories of the year. Plus, a callout for some help and a question about bills banning trans athletes.
- President Joe Biden appears to have landed a preliminary infrastructure deal with a group of five Democratic and five Republican senators that would include hundreds of billions of dollars of new spending. (The Washington Post, subscription)
- McAfee antivirus software creator John McAfee was found dead in a Spanish prison hours after he was approved for extradition to the U.S. (Associated Press)
- After months of criticism, Vice President Kamala Harris will visit the U.S.-Mexico border while visiting El Paso on Friday. (Politico)
- The Supreme Court ruled that a Pennsylvania school district violated a cheerleader’s First Amendment rights by punishing her for cursing in a Snapchat post while off campus. (NPR)
- A Republican-led months-long investigation into Michigan’s 2020 election found no evidence of widespread fraud, called for an investigation into those promoting false claims for “personal gain” and laid out suggestions for updating the state’s elections to address potential weaknesses. (Bridge Michigan)
What D.C. is talking about.
Voting rights. Yesterday, Senate Republicans voted unanimously not to debate H.R.1 / S. 1, a sweeping overhaul of election laws also known as The For The People Act. The vote denied Democrats the 60 votes necessary to debate the bill under Senate rules, once again leaving a piece of Democratic legislation running up against the filibuster barrier.
The For the People Act would have required states to expand mail-in voting, mandated online same-day registration, required two weeks of in-person early voting, effectively nullified some voter ID requirements, instituted new donor disclosure requirements for dark money, required the use of paper ballots, created a public financing system for campaigns and instituted national commissions to take over the job of redistricting from state legislatures.
Democrats proposed the legislation in response to Republican state legislatures that have been passing a wave of new election laws across the country — many of which have been criticized for making it more difficult to vote. Republicans objected to the bill, saying it was an infringement on states’ rights to conduct their own elections and to secure elections from fraud. They also said the bill was designed explicitly to benefit Democrats.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who opposes abolishing the filibuster to advance the bill, instead proposed adding provisions that include a national voter ID requirement and dropping the overhaul of how campaigns are financed. The ID requirement would allow voters to provide non-photo IDs, and has drawn support from former President Barack Obama and been described as “a step forward” by the Biden administration. But it did not garner any Republican support.
Now, Democrats are faced with two options: continue to alter the For The People Act in an effort to get Republican support, or turn their attention to the fall, when they will vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. That narrower bill would give teeth back to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that created pre-clearance requirements for jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to enact new voting restrictions. The bill was weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, and faces another challenge in the court that could be decided in the coming months.
This is one of the most important stories of the year. Below, we’ll take a look at some responses and reactions to the latest developments.
What the left is saying.
In The New York Times, Richard Pildes said the John Lewis Voting Rights Act “might well offer the best chance of new national legislation protecting the right to vote in America.”
“The John Lewis Act would restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act (Sections 4 and 5) that were effectively invalidated by the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder,” Pildes wrote. “When enacted in 1965, these provisions identified certain parts of the country and put their voting systems under a regime of federal control. These areas had to submit voting changes to the federal government, which had the power to block a proposal if it would diminish minority voter power. The federal government does not normally have veto power over state laws, but Section 5 created one.
“But Congress had no interest in making those politically charged decisions — determining whether voting practices were more discriminatory today in Ohio, say, than in Virginia,” he said. “It left the coverage status quo in place and renewed Section 5 for 25 more years… That is precisely what the John Lewis Act aims to do. A version the House passed in 2019 would cover only those states that have had 15 or more voting-rights violations in the past 25 years (or 10 violations if one was at the state level). Coverage would end after 10 years if the state has a clean record. The period rolls, or continuously moves, so that the act would remain tied to conditions in those time frames.”
In The Washington Post, Paul Waldman said The John Lewis Voting Rights Act “isn’t nearly enough.”
“Some of the attention has shifted to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a substantially less ambitious, though still worthy, reform,” Waldman wrote. The For the People Act, called S. 1 in the Senate, contains a long list of requirements for the way states conduct elections. It mandates automatic voter registration, ample early voting and easy ways for voters to identify themselves, as well as attacking gerrymandering. In short, S. 1 goes directly after the kind of voter suppression laws and anti-majoritarian tactics Republicans are frantically pursuing at the state level.
“While the For the People Act would make that harder for GOP legislatures in numerous ways, the John Lewis Act also might have an impact. If the Justice Department assessed that a proposed change along those lines would disproportionately harm minority voters, it might disallow it. But the John Lewis Act does not do all kinds of things that the more ambitious measure does. It wouldn’t undo already-passed voter suppression laws, it wouldn’t clamp down on extreme gerrymanders, and it wouldn’t make voter registration easier in numerous ways.”
In an MSNBC column, Hayes Brown said it’s clear Republicans are afraid to debate voting rights.
“I don’t know how much more bluntly I can say this: The filibuster isn’t a protector of democracy. It’s not the last bastion against tyranny of the majority. It’s a tool of cowards,” Brown wrote. “Because let’s be clear: Tuesday’s vote in the Senate wasn’t about passing the For the People Act. It wasn’t even the vote to begin the process of discussing and amending the bill. No, the vote was the first of two steps: first, asking the Senate to ‘end debate’ on whether to turn the Senate’s full attention to the bill; and then, if that passed, asking if a majority wanted to bring the bill to the Senate floor. That first step is what Senate Republicans rejected en masse.
“What was most galling about this whole shadow play is how unnecessary any of it was,” he wrote. “It would have cost Republicans nothing to allow debate on the bill to proceed — and then kill it before final passage or even filibustering the final vote. This was simply a GOP flex; a reminder that even though they’re in the minority, they still can effectively set the Senate’s agenda. It also served as a reminder that as much as Democrats (rightly) complain about Republican obstruction, they have the ability to break the logjam. But as of now, there aren’t the 50 votes necessary to amend the Senate rule that empowers the filibuster, let alone abolish the procedure.”
What the right is saying.
The right is glad The For The People Act was stopped, and also skeptical of Manchin’s proposed reforms and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Manchin circulated “an H.R.1 ‘compromise’ that is no bipartisan kumbaya.”
“To start, Mr. Manchin’s memo suggests mandating ‘at least 15 consecutive days of early voting.’ Yet one prominent Democratic opponent of H.R.1., New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, has objected that his state’s constitution dates to 1783, and it ‘requires that a voter must be present’ on Election Day unless ‘absent from the town or city, or physically disabled.’ Yet New Hampshire, he added, has had ‘the third highest voter turnout in the country for each of the last four presidential elections,’” the board wrote.
“The Manchin memo proposes that Congress ‘ban partisan gerrymandering and use computer models.’ It’s not clear precisely what Mr. Manchin has in mind, but skeptics will rightly see this as a plan to turn an overtly political process into a covertly political one that would be controlled by unaccountable technocrats,” the board added. “Mr. Manchin’s putative outreach to Republicans is his memo’s suggestion of a nationwide mandate to ‘require voter ID with allowable alternatives (utility bill, etc.) to prove identity to vote.’ Utility bills, for one, are easily forged. This would undercut state laws that require showing photo ID, which may be a reason that Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Barack Obama are supporting Mr. Manchin’s effort. In the past Democrats have argued that voter ID is nothing more than an attempt to suppress minority voters.”
In The National Review, the editorial board said it’s an understatement to call the For The People Act “a radical assault on American democracy, federalism, and free speech.”
“It is actually several radical left-wing wish lists stuffed into a single 791-page sausage casing,” the board wrote. “It would override hundreds of state laws governing the orderly conduct of elections, federalize control of voting and elections to a degree without precedent in American history, end two centuries of state power to draw congressional districts, turn the Federal Elections Commission into a partisan weapon, and massively burden political speech against the government while offering government handouts to congressional campaigns and campus activists. Merely to describe the bill is to damn it, and describing it is a Herculean task in itself.
“H.R. 1 mandates that states provide same-day registration and allow people to change their name and address on the rolls at the polling place on Election Day, then forbids states from treating their votes as provisional ballots that can be checked later,” the board added. “It mandates online registration without adequate safeguards against hackers. It mandates automated registration of people who apply for unemployment, Medicaid, Obamacare, and college, or who are coming out of prison. The bill’s authors expect this to register noncitizens: They create a safe harbor against prosecution of noncitizens who report that they have been erroneously registered.”
In a Fox News column, Harmeet Dhillon said now that the “Corrupt Politicians Act” is failing, Democrats are turning to the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
“Despite its inspirational label, H.R. 4 is the Left’s Trojan horse to accomplish many of H.R. 1/S. 1’s policy goals through a back door,” she wrote. “H.R. 4 would put more power in the hands of the federal government to control state election procedures, make it harder for states to enact important election integrity safeguards, lower the legal standards for obtaining injunctions, and allow the federal government to use its new power to attack laws in the states well beyond voting rights.
“Last year’s H.R. 4 would have resurrected the preclearance coverage formula of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, which required certain states and localities to receive approval from Washington for proposed election changes,” she added. “Preapproval was required for even minor changes like moving a polling place from the firehouse to the community center! Should this be a matter for federal government intervention? The justification for preclearance made sense when the VRA was passed 56 years ago: to combat the abuses and actual voter suppression of the Jim Crow South…Because the VRA’s preclearance system was obsolete, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5’s formula in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.”
This is a massive loss for progressive Democrats.
As this new Congress took their seats, I expected there to be pressure to abolish the filibuster — and many progressive Democrats saw voting rights as the most suitable issue to do that. Liberal activists were going to organize a summertime ad campaign blitz, raise millions of dollars and bring Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), the two moderate holdouts, to their knees.
But none of that happened. Instead, The Voting Rights Act died quietly, predictably, and for extra salt in the wound, Sinema actually penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post defending the filibuster on the night before the vote. Not only did Democrats not get momentum to end the filibuster, they almost didn’t even get 50 votes to debate the bill (that required Manchin’s three-page memo of proposed changes). Republicans never flinched in their obstruction. Now all the focus is going to move to infrastructure, where a bipartisan group seems to be closing in on a deal that’s palatable for middle-ground Republicans and Joe Biden Democrats but will, again, infuriate progressives who want to go bigger.
It’s also a huge win for Republicans. As I’ve said before, the cowardice to not even debate a bill — and propose changes — is something I’ll always criticize regardless of the issue. I say that even though I’ve written critically about H.R.1 in the past, and even though it’s true that it was a total boondoggle of major reforms that would have gone too far and never had a shot to become law. There were strong reforms in H.R.1, though, including the expansion of early voting, reforming redistricting laws to limit gerrymandering, allowing felons to vote and an attempt to address the corruption of money in politics. Things Republicans could have tried to build on, but they didn’t.
It’s also true this is all a response to Republicans at the state level doing everything they can to change voting laws in their favor, all on the fanciful and absurd charges that the 2020 election was somehow fraudulent or in any way compromised.
The task of fighting those restrictive laws now lies with the Justice Department and liberal activist groups, who will have to file longshot lawsuits and rally voters to do enough to overcome the barriers in front of them, respectively. Personally, I’m not very optimistic.
I believe The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is a good piece of legislation, and while it opens the door to federal overreach it’s also a shot across the bow for state legislators who are clearly in the business of picking their voters. Partisan gerrymandering is out of control and lots of state-level Republicans aren’t even hiding their attempts to reduce minority turnout or prevent Democrats from winning elections by making voting harder. Giving the federal government more power to punish some obviously discriminatory legislation feels appropriate given this moment (the threat of it alone would do a lot of good).
At the same time, though, there’s another interesting thing happening: momentum for all of this feels like it’s falling apart. COVID-19 restraints are lifting, and people are simply getting back to life. The politically charged last year and a half feels as if it’s in the rearview mirror. I’m seeing less social media activism, less street activism, and in New York’s mayoral election I know of a ton of people who spent the last year protesting and posting that didn’t even show up to vote. In short: I think the temperature on the left’s participation is actually down. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to push the John Lewis Act across the finish line, and it’s far less likely they pressure Sinema and Manchin into abolishing or modifying the filibuster.
Something about this moment just feels like a pivot — from a lot of Democratic barking and showing of teeth to the blunt reality that they don’t have the votes to abolish the filibuster or the moderates on the right to move the needle on this issue. If an infrastructure bill actually lands, I suspect it’ll be one of the last major legislative wins for Biden of his presidency, and will only solidify his belief in his own centrism rather than allowing the left-wing of his party to push him to abandon any pretext of bipartisan outreach.
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Your questions, answered.
Q: What's your take on many states' recent efforts to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams for their affirmed gender? The governor of my state just vetoed such a bill yesterday, and I'm conflicted. How do we balance affirming trans people's identities with the biological reality that male and female bodies are physically different? Should a person be assigned to a sports team based on their stage of transition, or should we create sports teams specifically for FTM and MTF athletes?
— Anonymous, New Orleans, Louisiana
Tangle: I don’t mean to punt on this question, but I’ve gotten a few like it so I figured I’d take the opportunity to point to some past writing on this.
I wrote about The Equality Act in February and touched on the issue of navigating trans athletes’ inclusion in sports. Then I published a bunch of very good feedback and criticism to that writing. I’d encourage you to read both for a holistic view on this question. I also interviewed Dr. Erica Anderson, a psychologist and clinician who works with transgender youth. Anderson is also a trans woman and gave what I’d safely describe as a very progressive look at the issue (I’m working on bringing on a counterpoint to her arguments sometime soon).
The upshot of all of this is that I don’t know. Literally. And I’m still working to find an answer. But I do think these bills banning high school trans students from participating in gender-affirming sports are cruel. In nearly all high school sports, the stakes are not that high, and the number of trans athletes looking for inclusion is very low. I’d rather help those students navigate what I imagine are already extremely difficult challenges of being trans in high school. These are kids; let’s lead with empathy.
Things are a little more challenging at the collegiate, amateur and professional levels. For a long time, I thought the answer was a simple scientific one. Test hormone levels, establish certain baselines, allow hormone treatment, navigate divisions based on athletes’ levels, and allow/disallow trans athletes on these grounds (sort of like weight classes for wrestlers). But the science is not that simple, and some have made a good case that there’s so much overlap in testosterone values for cisgender males and cisgender females that you’d inevitably be including and excluding people who aren’t trans.
So, yeah. Generally, I don’t like the bills because I don’t think blanket laws are necessary to handle this issue (you’ll see a lot of me opposing blanket government prohibitions of anything in Tangle). But I do think it’s a tricky thing to navigate, and I legitimately don’t know what the best way to balance inclusion and competitive fairness is. I suspect the answer needs to come from the governing bodies that run these leagues and competitive arenas, who have a vested interest in maintaining both fairness and inclusion.
A story that matters.
Have you noticed things taking conspicuously long in the mail recently? That’s not your imagination. Under the leadership of Louis DeJoy, cost-cutting has primarily been focused on slowing mail delivery times, especially for first-class mail. And customers are noticing. The usual timeliness of USPS is no longer feasible and were — according to some in USPS leadership — unrealistic to sustain. But that means everything from clothing deliveries to medication may not be as timely as it once was. The Washington Post recently dug into the service, laying out a tool that can show you how mail delivery times will change in your area, as well as an explanation of what to expect going forward when you mail something. They have the story here.
- 71%. The percentage of voters who think early voting should be made easier, according to a new Monmouth poll.
- 16%. The percentage of voters who think early voting should be made harder, according to a new Monmouth poll.
- 62%. The percentage of Democrats who back a requirement to provide photo identification to vote, according to a new Monmouth poll.
- 91%. The percentage of Republicans who back a requirement to provide photo identification to vote, according to a new Monmouth poll.
- 87%. The percentage of independents who back a requirement to provide photo identification to vote, according to a new Monmouth poll.
- 84%. The percentage of Democrats who think mail-in voting should be made easier, according to a new Monmouth poll.
- 26%. The percentage of Republicans who think mail-in voting should be made easier, according to a new Monmouth poll.
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Kieran Moïse’s afro had grown to 19 inches long, a hairdo that he had become known for. But with a trip to the U.S. Air Force Academy around the corner, the 17-year-old decided to do something special with his very special hair: he cut it. Then he donated it to Children With Hair Loss, a nonprofit that provides human hair replacements to kids and teenagers facing hair loss because of cancer treatments, alopecia or burns. Moïse decided to make the donation after losing a friend to cancer. “I knew I didn’t want it to just get cut off and thrown on the floor, so I wanted to give back,” he said. “I knew I wanted to send a message.” (Associated Press)