Opinion: States cannot be trusted to protect the right to vote

The President implored the GOP and two Senate members of his own party — presumably, he was referring to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who haven’t always aligned with Democrats — to defend what the late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis called the “precious” right to cast a ballot. “I’m going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal for its passage,” he vowed. Biden also announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will be leading this effort.
The speech comes at a perilous time for our democracy. As Senate Republicans and Manchin gridlock the voting rights legislation bill that passed the House last March, Republicans in red state governments are fighting tooth and nail to impose stricter rules that would make it harder to vote. After a historic pandemic-era election, in which voting was made easier in many places, demonstrating that greater civic engagement is possible, the restrictionists are desperate to reverse those gains.
Georgia and Florida already moved restrictive voting bills through their state legislatures and had them signed into law. Texas Democrats were only able to stifle a Republican legislative package through a dramatic walkout Sunday night. But that fight isn’t over yet, as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to defund the state’s legislature, threatening the salary of lawmakers. The state’s party leaders are preparing to revive their voter restriction campaign.
In a statement of concern released Wednesday, a sizable group of distinguished scholars warned that states were “seeking to restrict access to the ballot, the most basic principle underlying the right of all adult American citizens to participate in our democracy . . . Republican lawmakers have openly talked about ensuring the ‘purity’ and ‘quality’ of the vote, echoing arguments widely used across the Jim Crow South as reasons for restricting the Black vote.”

Simply put, the states cannot be trusted to protect the right to vote. You don’t need to be an expert in “Critical Race Theory” to know that American history has shown that reactionary forces have always been strong in our body politic. Without a federal commitment to protect voting rights, there are always coalitions within states that are willing to go along with initiatives that curtail electoral participation.

During the heyday of racist voting restrictions — the Jim Crow era — for example, southern states were the battleground where backlash politics undermined the promise of Reconstruction. Southern states used a variety of measures to undercut the Fifteenth Amendment, ranging from poll taxes to literacy tests to outright violence and intimidation, sanctioned by the state, to ensure that African American registration would remain low.
While there were many African American activists who risked their lives to challenge this system, it took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to change it. Responding to “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, when state troopers violently attacked protesters in Selma, Alabama who had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Mrs. E. Jackson wrote her representative: “We can’t sit by any longer and watch the shocking events in Ala. Send troops there not overseas and protect those people right to vote. It’s sicken [sic] and as a mother of four sons I can’t stand it any longer. To think that one day my sons could lose their lives protecting those ignorant people down there is unbearable.”
It wasn’t until President Lyndon Johnson and Congress’ sweeping legislation, that all Americans were guaranteed that federal officials would take action if there was evidence of voting discrimination. “Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote,” Johnson proclaimed. The Senate passed the legislation by a whopping margin of 77 to 19. And the legislation worked. In Mississippi, one of the most notoriously racist states in the country, the percentage of registered African American voters jumped from about 6.7% in 1965 to 59.8% three years later.
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Voting discrimination declined over the next few decades. The power of the federal government — with bipartisan support — proved to be an awesome force. The measures that the civil rights movement had pressured Congress into accepting in 1965 were essential to counteracting the reactionary elements of our polity.

But in 2013 the US Supreme Court dropped the ball with Shelby v. Holder. In that decision, the Supreme Court knocked down key pillars of the Voting Rights Act. The results were predictable. Since that landmark decision, the nation witnessed a rapid acceleration of voting restrictions, particularly in red states. The drive has been primarily partisan.

Republicans have become the party connected with the campaign to use everything from cumbersome photo identification requirements to limitations on early and absentee voting as a way to make it more difficult — rather than easier — for Americans to choose their elected leaders. Based on false claims of mass voting fraud, the GOP has placed its bet on making voting more difficult, thereby abandoning the bipartisan foundation of the Voting Rights Act. Once again, many states have shown that they can’t be trusted as they have allowed this drive to accelerate.

Though the Biden administration certainly has the institutional capacity to fight these efforts through the Department of Justice and political pressure on a state-by-state basis, this strategy is the equivalent of attempting to use a person’s fingers to plug up the holes in a dam. It might be possible to stop a few of the leaks, but ultimately the water will break through. That is what’s happening right now.

We are at a crossroads for our democracy. Putting partisan concerns aside — and Democrats would do well to consider the impact that these voting restrictions might have — the right to vote is the pillar of a healthy democracy. If the Senate drops the ball on the legislation, with Senate Republicans being allowed to gut voting “rights” and Manchin being allowed to act as if he was elected president, we all have a problem. Over the long term, every American suffers regardless of whether they vote red or blue.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 worked. The Supreme Court subsequently undermined that legislation. Congress now has an opportunity to correct that wrong. Rarely does the legislative branch have such a clear-cut decision before it.

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