Vice President Kamala Harris criticizes voter suppression campaigns

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at The Gathering Spot on voting rights and the Biden administration's efforts to ensure ballot access for Americans, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Atlanta. After brief public remarks, Harris held a private round table with business, civic and non-profit leaders. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Vice President Kamala Harris met with voting rights advocates in Atlanta, Georgia, on Jan. 9 to discuss ongoing efforts to protect the right to vote. In a roundtable discussion, Harris raised the issue of coordinated campaigns focused on voter suppression and limiting access to the polls.

“What we’ve seen in terms of mass challenges, where extremist groups are challenging the eligibility of hundreds of voters, and, again, what that is intended to do to bog up the system in a way that creates deterrence, slows down the process that we should all want and require, which is free and fair elections,” Harris said.

Harris went on to note that she and President Joe Biden back legislation designed to expand voting access, specifically naming the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which were both considered during the 2021-2022 legislative session

The Freedom to Vote Act, which was introduced in the Senate in September 2021, would set federal standards protecting voter registration and voting access and establish Election Day as a national holiday. In October 2021, even though a majority of senators supported proceeding on the bill, it failed to secure the 60 votes required to begin debate in the Senate. The bill was unanimously opposed by Republicans.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would reinstate many of the federal election protections first put in place by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, protections that were designed to prevent racially discriminatory practices that blocked voting access. Those protections were removed through a series of decisions made by the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 and Brnovich v. DNC in 2021.

The legislation passed the House when it had a Democratic majority in 2021, but was not taken up for consideration by the Senate.

Both bills have since been reintroduced in the current Congress but have not been brought up for a vote. The Senate’s Freedom to Vote Act was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in July 2023 and was referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration, while the John Lewis Voting Rights Act was introduced by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) and referred to the Judiciary Committee.

In Wisconsin, several attempts have been made to restrict voter participation, led by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

In 2019, the institute sued the Wisconsin Elections commission, which had delayed a decision to deactivate thousands of voter registrations in hopes of avoiding a repetition of a previous round of deactivations in 2016 that had erroneously purged about 7,000 voters. An analysis by the Guardian newspaper found that the areas most likely to be affected were those that were home to college-aged and Black voters, who disproportionately vote in favor of Democrats.

The case was ultimately decided in April 2021, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court told the state election commission that voters should not be automatically purged from rolls if voters had been flagged in the system as having possibly moved from their residence.

Former President Donald Trump lost to Biden in Wisconsin by over 20,000 votes in November 2020, after defeating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the state by a similar margin in 2016.

Following the 2020 election, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty sued over the use of ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin, which many voters used rather than vote in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2022, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in the group’s favor, banning the use of most drop boxes in the state.In addition to its election-related suits, the group has also sued to restrict LGBTQ rights and to prevent Black farmers from receiving compensation for past discrimination against them.