However, some of today’s issues are more than passing fancies that grab public attention until the next big thing comes along. One that looms large with those of us deeply concerned about the health of our democracy: the Republican voter suppression crusade that will diminish access to the ballot for people of color.
It is an existential threat to an essential right of U.S. citizenship — the freedom to vote in open elections.
Staring us in the face are 361 restrictive bills by mostly Republican state legislatures across the country that, at bottom, aim to curb voter participation. The supposed rationale for the open assault on voting rights is the baseless charge of voter fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election leveled by the defeated president, Donald Trump, and echoed by his flock of followers.
The real motivation, however, was the historic turnout for that election, and the color of so many of the folks who got off their sofas and on their feet to cast ballots for Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris. And who, in Georgia, went on to confound the pundits and flip the state — and the U.S. Senate — for the Democrats.
As the Rev. Jesse Jackson put it back in 1981 when confronted with resistance to court-ordered busing, “It ain’t the bus, it’s us.”
It was the sight of Blacks and other people of color standing in long lines to vote or leaving their homes to mail in ballots that prompted Republican statehouses to start cracking the whip on those uppity voters.
Anyone concerned about protecting what recently elected Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) calls “the infrastructure of our democracy” would do well to focus their gaze on history.
The 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote, leading to the election of many Black men to public offices in the 1870s in states of the Old Confederacy. Citizenship was no longer a distant dream.
That is, until the late 1870s, when it all fell apart. Southern states, freed from Reconstruction and federal oversight by the Compromise of 1877, passed Jim Crow laws — including such measures as the poll tax, grandfather clauses and allowing strong doses of violence and intimidation — to revive Black disenfranchisement by the beginning of the 20th century.
A trail of blood still stains the path from the Jim Crow era to the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed legal barriers at the state and local levels to voting by Blacks. But the struggle was worth the pain.
Eight days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965, federal voting examiners arrived in Selma, Ala., and registered 381 new Black voters — more than had managed to register in Selma’s county during the preceding 65 years. By November, the county had 8,000 new Black voters.
In Mississippi, the percentage of eligible Black voters registered rocketed from 7 percent in 1964 to 67 percent in 1969. The political landscape changed, too. In 1965, there were a total of 72 Black elected officials in the jurisdictions the act targeted for “special” oversight; nearly 10 years later, there were nearly 1,000.
But guess what? In 2013, the Supreme Court, with a majority of Republican-nominated justices, concluded that 48 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, everything was just peachy keen down South, so there was no longer a need for Southern states to get federal preclearance to impose restrictions on voting. Within hours of the decision, states were off to the races with new Jim Crow-style voting restrictions. And the same thing is happening now in response to Democratic gains fueled by Black voters last year.
So that is really what’s at stake at this moment. Are we about to return to the days when White political leaders and election officials got away with depressing turnout by people they think of as enemies?
The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are designed to protect voting rights and bring equity and accountability to our system. Both bills, passed by the House and now pending in the Senate, face strong Republican opposition led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Horse-race reporting might be focused on who’s winning and losing in these early months of the Biden administration. But if Republicans win their voter suppression campaigns, the biggest loser of all will be American democracy.
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