For all the bluster, slights, and insults, aside from tax relief for the wealthy, there was little legislative action to match the heated rhetoric of the Trump years. By contrast, in just a few weeks of a publicly quiet administration (is anyone else as relieved as I am to not have all the Twitter-drama?), Joe Biden has moved some of the biggest and most important legislation through Congress since LBJ. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 wasn’t just Johnson’s or the bipartisan legislature’s triumph; it was a triumphal moment in American history. Coupled with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they sought to close the book on the inequality of Jim Crow once and for all. It turns out that racism’s gravitational pull is harder to escape than we knew. It’s a lesson we have to relearn with disappointing frequency.
Last week, HR-1, known as the “For the People Act,” passed the House along party lines, but won’t go anywhere in the Senate which, because of the filibuster, a device that requires 60 votes to do anything at all in the Senate. If you wonder why the Senate has done nothing in years, the answer is the filibuster. The Dems can’t muster the votes to kill the filibuster, so HR-1, while noble, is a dead letter.
It’s a shame too, because the bill is designed to restore much of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court undid. It would also put a stop to the partisan gerrymandering that allows representatives to pick their voters instead of the other way around; eliminate “dark money” from political campaigns by making contributors disclose their identities; and squeeze some of the money out of politics with a public option to fund congressional campaigns.
Lobbying for the bill, its author, John Sarbanes (D-MD), said, “You can win on the basis of your ideas and the programs you put forward, which is what we choose to do, or you can try to win by suppressing the vote, drawing unfair districts across the country and using big money to spread disinformation.”
At both the state and national levels, the GOP is using the thoroughly debunked Big Lie that Joe Biden “stole” the election as their excuse for a laundry list of ways to keep minorities from voting.
Voter suppression has three major components that have historically been used to keep would-be legal voters at bay:
Before a single ballot is cast, suppress the vote by making registration as hard as possible.
On Election Day, discourage participation by a combination of lies and intimidation: say the election is next week; lie about polling hours; reduce the numbers of polls, and the hours of operation; intimidate would-be voters at the polls with a show of force. (In days past, it was the Ku Klux Klan; today it’s the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and the Q-crowd.)
Failing the above, after the election, cry fraud, sue, and if legal objections fail, change state laws—as Republicans in forty-three states are trying to do today—by restricting times, places and methods for early voting, limiting vote-by-mail, and absentee-ballots, in effort that the good-government watchdog group, Common Cause, calls “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.”
They cry fraud with no evidence, but unlike bygone eras, they have the support of a mighty right-wing media infrastructure that perpetuates the lie. An especially obvious and ugly racist action has them trying to end Sunday early voting where Black churches use busses to take “souls to the polls,” helping people who don’t have transportation or the ability to leave work to vote on Election Day.
It is worth noting that California and Utah, political polar opposites, both go out of their way to register everyone and encourage the use of absentee and mail-in ballots.
President Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote in 1888 due to voter suppression in the South. Henry Cabot Lodge, then Chairman of the House Elections Committee wrote, “The government which made the Black man a citizen is bound to protect him in his rights as a citizen of the United States, and it is a cowardly government if it does not do it! No people can afford to write anything into their Constitution and not sustain it. A failure to do what is right brings its own punishment to nations as to men.”
Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who leads the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church, would like to call the bill the “John Lewis Voting Rights Act” after his congregant, the civil rights icon who wrote most of the bill before he died last year. Whatever you call it, HR1 is designed to make sure all eligible Americans are allowed to exercise the franchise, an idea that puts fear in the hearts of Republicans.