The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are what this big ongoing fight is all about.
They are arguably the last, best hope to protect upcoming elections from political interference.
They are the Democratic Party’s most direct counter to the January 6 insurrection; its long-overdue response to far-right Supreme Court cluelessness.
And hordes of reporters are writing reams of copy about whether Democrats will agree amongst themselves to ease filibuster rules to pass them by a simple majority vote.
But what is actually in these bills?
Good luck finding out by reading the news.
Political reporters have been almost exclusively focused on process and strategy – who’s up, who’s down, who’s talking to whom, who’s walking back what — while including a short paragraph or two about the bills’ aims, if that.
Obviously, process is hugely important here. Neither bill has a chance unless Biden and Democratic leaders can get their two loose cannons – Sens. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema – lined up and shooting straight.
But the contents of the bills should still be a much bigger part of the coverage. News reporters should be describing the various elements, the reasoning behind them, who opposes them, and why.
That means reporting on how, if both parties were acting in good faith, most of what’s in the two bills wouldn’t be the subject of partisan wrangling at all. After all, a lot of the individual measures have previously won Republican support.
That means aggressively asking individual Republican senators to explain their opposition, and putting that opposition in its true context. The fact is, whether they say it out loud or not, the Republican Senate is in lockstep support of making it harder, not easier, for people to vote, and making it possible to declare victory – officially, this time — even when they have been defeated.
That means reminding readers and viewers that this is not just another partisan or procedural struggle. The rhetoric, for once, is supported by the details. This is about preserving democracy.
In Atlanta on Tuesday, President Biden delivered a stirring call to action, discussing elements of both bills in detail, and calling attention to how even Republicans like arch-segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina eventually came to support the Voting Rights Act. (It was in 1982; Biden was a co-sponsor.) “Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America’s right to vote. Not one.”
But almost the entire focus of the immediate media coverage was on whether his plea to change the filibuster to get the bills passed would be heeded by all the senators from his party. Even before he gave his speech, the New York Times had concluded the answer was almost certainly no. As in the Washington Post‘s initial story, discussion of the actual stakes was limited to a few throwaway sentences.
It’s been like this all along. When Carl Hulse and Emily Cochrane reported for the New York Times on Jan. 3 that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had set a Jan. 17 deadline for an up-or-down vote on the bills, they included all of 13 words about the Freedom to Vote Act and 16 on the John Lewis bill.
When Biden denounced Trump on Jan. 6 as a threat to the constitutional order, his forward-looking message was that the right response to the GOP effort to defy the will of the voters is to make sure that every citizen’s vote is cast, counted, and respected.
But Michael Scherer, reporting on the story for the Washington Post, didn’t mention the bills at all.
This December 29 explainer by the New York Times, “Voting Rights and the Battle Over Elections: What to Know,” included one dismissive paragraph about the bills, calling them “sweeping,” but describing them as pretty much doomed.
So by the Times’s reckoning, “what to know” doesn’t include bupkus about the bills.
Meanwhile, the newsletter crowd couldn’t care less about the legislation itself, they just want to know: “Will Biden make a more forceful case for reforming the filibuster?”
About the Bills
Reporters or just plain citizens looking for a good overview should start with a recent Washington Post opinion piece by two of the city’s good-government giants, Fred Wertheimer and Norman Eisen.
Their news peg was a transparent Republican attempt to derail the two big bills by backing a smaller – and for the moment, irrelevant – one. But Wertheimer and Eisen offered a wonderful and easy-to-understand explanation of what’s actually in the Freedom to Vote bill, a stripped-down but still ambitious version of H.R. 1, the For the People Act.
For one, they wrote, the act “takes aim at the election hijacking going on in so many Republican-controlled states”:
Last year, 262 bills introduced in 41 states would award undue power to state legislatures or hyperpartisan actors to interfere with election administration; 32 of them are now law in 17 states.
The measures introduced or passed do things such as intimidate election officials by allowing bogus “audits” of nonexistent fraud, criminalize routine election administration and allow legislatures to replace election boards that refuse to bow to partisanship. In the worst-case scenario, some proposals permit the state legislature to determine who won an election, irrespective of the voters’ choice….
In Florida, for example, the Freedom to Vote Act (FTVA), which Senate Democrats have sponsored, would make moot a new law that institutes onerous ID requirements to even request a mail-in ballot. Such requirements disproportionately affect voters of color. In Texas, the bill would preempt a blanket ban on ballot drop boxes, which are essential for densely populated, heavily minority jurisdictions. In Georgia, the legislation would counter a new provision that outlaws giving food and water to voters waiting in line; such lines are most common in counties like Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb, where voters of color predominate….
The FTVA mandates that states use paper ballots for voting for federal office, creating an indisputable record of the vote in case a state legislature attempts to question the results via a phony audit. The bill would protect election officials from dismissal without cause. It would recognize a federal right to vote so that undue state legislative meddling can be challenged in court, subjecting state-level election processes to federal judicial scrutiny and allowing redress against individuals or legislatures that attempt to subvert the duly exercised will of the people.
Provisions of the former include:
- Requiring all 50 states to offer early voting periods for at least two weeks prior to Election Day, including on nights and weekends.
- Establishing a national standard permitting no-excuse vote by mail for every eligible voter.
- Making Election Day a legal public holiday, making it easier for voters to get to the polls.
- Creating a less onerous national standard for states that have voter ID requirements.
- Restoring federal voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens upon their release.
- Increasing protections for local election administrators from being removed for partisan or political reasons.
- Banning partisan gerrymandering and establishing clear, neutral standards.
- Making automatic voter registration the national standard.
- Requiring same-day voter registration and online voter registration.
- Curbing “dark money” in federal elections by requiring any entity that spends more than $10,000 in an election to disclose all major donors.
- Requiring paper records and other election infrastructure improvements.
Did you know that? That’s kind of an amazing list, am I right? And there’s more.
As for the John Lewis bill, it doesn’t simply restore the crucial Voting Rights Act provisions struck down by the John Roberts Supreme Court in 2013, it expands and modernizes them. As the Brennan Center explains, it includes a new formula for establishing which “jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination must get approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, DC, before changing their voting laws or practices to ensure the changes are not discriminatory.”
It also requires federal approval nationwide for some types of particularly discriminatory voting changes. Those include creating at-large districts in places with sufficiently large minority populations, changing boundaries to dilute minority votes, or reducing access to multilingual voting materials.
It would also make it easier for voters to successfully sue to block discriminatory voting laws, and protect the right of Native Americans to vote.
Instead of making it impossible for readers and viewers to find out what’s in the bills, reporters should make it impossible for them to miss it. That includes publishing explainers on each bill, and then putting more than a few words about the bills in each story.
Some news sites did explain what’s in the bills when they were introduced and then never again. The Times’s Nicholas Fandos, for instance, wrote up the unveiling of the John Lewis bill in August.
For online news sites, the answer is painfully obvious: After publishing an introduction or explainers on a bill, make links to those pieces omnipresent on your incremental coverage.
Allow me a personal anecdote: The ability to provide deep context with a click was what attracted me to online news in the first place — in 1996. Working on the washingtonpost.com website in the late 1990s, my main task was to supplement the newsroom’s coverage of major political issues with primers and FAQs, timelines and key stories.
They were awfully labor intensive – although they paid off in cumulative page views and in telegraphing to readers the depth of the material available on the website.
Now, just adding one link would be an improvement, and that’s not so hard.
The pressure in political journalism to create clickbait, cover the horserace, and get scoops – all of those work against the interests of the reader or viewer who wants to be an informed citizen.
Democrats may take extraordinary steps to get these two bills passed. Reporters should consider at least taking a few baby steps toward helping Americans understand why.