The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Giving up on voting rights now would be unconscionable

A state trooper swings a billy club at John Lewis, right foreground, to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. (AP)

If civil rights leaders had given up at the first signs of resistance to equality in the 1950s, our nation would never have won the next decade’s great victories over racial subjugation.

The same determination is required after last week’s defeat of voting rights legislation. It was depressing. It was enraging. But it cannot be the final act.

In the short run, this means fighting voter suppression and election subversion with whatever tools are at hand. Over the long term, building political power is the only way to win federal guarantees for ballot access. Walking away out of frustration or disillusionment is self-defeating.

To avoid a demobilization that could lead to an anti-democratic retreat akin to the disgraceful reaction to Reconstruction, political leaders must prove through concrete action that they are still in this fight.

Today’s civil rights leaders, like their forebears, are certainly not giving up. They will keep pressure on the 50 Republicans and two Democrats who blocked Senate action. “We need to broaden our strategy,” Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told me. “There are Republicans who should have been willing to at least engage in the debate and they did not. And they were somehow let off the hook.”

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The Biden administration can demonstrate its resolve in ways small and large. It should fully implement its March executive order calling on all agencies of the federal government to help citizens register and vote. The president should take other pro-democracy executive actions. An example: Make Election Day a federal holiday for government employees and encourage state holidays, too.

Despite the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department should announce that it will use every tool it still has to enforce the Constitution’s guarantees of equal voting rights. Congress should increase funding for this work.

If some of the cases get to the Supreme Court, good: Let the conservatives on this court either stop trying to push us back to the late 19th century or prove beyond doubt how hostile they are to democracy — and how urgent it is for Congress to act.

Congress should try to pass whatever pieces of the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act it can. On any issue that touches on funding for easier voting access, the Senate should avoid the filibuster by using the reconciliation process.

Reforming the 1887 Electoral Count Act is necessary, though no substitute for voting rights. Republicans who support reform of the law should be pressed to merge it with the John Lewis bill. At minimum a revised law should block states from politicizing election boards and strengthen federal penalties against intimidating voters and election officials.

In the states, organizers need to do all they can to block further suppression and subversion measures and, where possible, use the referendum process to undo some of the damage.

Fighting voter suppression in this fall’s election will be work-intensive and expensive, so activists should concentrate their efforts. The times call for a Georgia Summer project — akin to the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi — and flood the state with resources through Election Day and beyond.

Georgia Republicans have enacted some of the worst election laws in the nation and two of the most forceful Democratic champions of voting rights, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, will be on the ballot. Other states that might be focal points: Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin and Texas. All have key races and voting challenges.

Short-term defeats can contain the seeds of future victories, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the Senate’s most effective voting rights advocates, pointed to two “silver linings” of forcing even a disappointing showdown on the voting bills.

First, she said in an interview, one of the most passionate floor debates in many years underscored the depth of “the assault on democracy going on” and demonstrated how damaging to voters seemingly obscure changes to state election laws can be.

Second, it exposed the hypocrisy of claims that the filibuster was sacrosanct when it has, in fact, been altered again and again. “Why are we accepting the fact that tax cuts and [the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice] Amy Coney Barrett and repeal of regulations can get through with 51 votes, but a voting package for every voter in America, to make it easy for them to vote, needs 60?” she asked. The debate, she said, put “a big spotlight on all the shenanigans that have gone on for a long, long time.”

The last book the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote bore the title “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” This era’s answer to his question must be to fight the chaos created when a democracy based on equal citizenship is sabotaged.