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Linda Jacks, 70, from Silver Spring, Maryland attends a rally outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, in support of the For the People Act on June 9, 2021. © 2021 Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein

(Washington, DC) – The United States Congress should swiftly pass two critical laws needed to protect and advance the right to vote, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act, Human Rights Watch said today. Both pieces of legislation are essential to protecting US democracy.

Since the troubled transition from the administration of former President Donald Trump, state legislators throughout the US have introduced hundreds of bills that would restrict access to voting, many of them echoing Trump’s false claims about the 2020 presidential election results. These state laws represent backsliding in the US from voting systems historically aimed at upholding the rights of voters and respecting the will of the people. Without federal action, the rights of voters will be seriously impaired, particularly those of Black, brown, and low-income voters, Human Rights Watch said.

“Two laws pending before Congress would help the United States ensure that the will of the people, not of politicians, determines the outcome of an election,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US director at Human Rights Watch.“Passage of both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For The People Act would be a crucial step toward guaranteeing every American a baseline level of voting access, free from efforts to hamper, dilute, or nullify their votes.”

The United States has a long history of discrimination against Black and brown people exercising the right to vote. Even after the federal enactment of the US Voting Rights Act in 1965, which aimed to reduce discrimination in voting, Black, Latinx, and Native American citizens experienced many obstacles to voting. Changes by some states in recent years, including those enabled by a 2013 US Supreme Court case – Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated federal oversight under the act – have made voting harder, not easier. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems. Trump’s promotion of a false narrative about the results of the 2020 election, echoed by his allies, is a serious attack on the concept that every vote should count. It also harms the millions of voters of color who came out in record numbers to speak through the ballot box.

The decentralized administration of elections in the United States means that no state administers elections in exactly the same way as another state. Each US state has a chief election official who has ultimate authority over elections, but which official holds this power varies from state to state. For example, many states rely on their secretary of state as their chief election official, some require governors to appoint top election officials, and others use appointed bipartisan election commissions. It is a patchwork quilt of voting systems.

The groundswell of new state laws began early this year with the introduction of 253 bills proposing voting restrictions across 43 states as of February 19, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. That number rose to at least 389 bills in 48 states as of May 14, the Brennan Center reported recently. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For The People Act would increase federal oversight of state laws that might restrict the right to vote and quell the voices of the most vulnerable voters.

“The US should urgently take action to protect the rights of voters,” Austin-Hillery said. “In the words of the late Congressman John Lewis, ‘the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.’ No voter should be blocked from using it.”

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