This is an emergency.
Election Day is little more than four months off, voters facing their most important choice since 1860: President Donald Trump or America? It’s a decision that will define the future.
And millions of us wonder if we’ll get to have our say.
Such is the state of things seven years almost to the day since the Supreme Court disemboweled The Voting Rights Act of 1965, specifically the section requiring states and municipalities with histories of voting discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing their balloting procedures.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts justified the ruling by pointing out that the racial disparities in voter registration and turnout that existed in 1965 no longer did. In other words, the fact that the Act worked proved it was no longer needed. The ensuing years have made him look like a fool.
Republicans have unleashed an explosion of measures — purges, shutdown of early voting, attacks on absentee ballots, closure of polling places — all putatively to fight voter fraud. But in fixing a problem that doesn’t exist, the GOP, not accidentally, created one that is very real, making voting an endurance test for people of color. Black Americans now wait longer to vote, have fewer places to do so and face more obstacles along the way than they have in 55 years.
And suddenly America is the nation that can’t vote straight, every Election Day yielding fresh embarrassments. Georgia’s recent primary, for instance, was a nightmare of closed polling places, broken machines and long lines, prompting one observer to dub it “a hot, flaming f—— mess.” Kentucky was never covered by the Act, but perhaps should have been based on its recent primary. The state closed almost all of its nearly 3,700 polling places, leaving voters with just 170, supposedly because of the coronavirus pandemic. Louisville, a city of 620,000 people, nearly one in four of them Black, had just one polling place.
This sort of thing is incompatible with representative democracy. It gives the lie to everything America claims to be. And it makes clear that restoring the Voting Rights Act will not be enough. It’s time for a new Voting Rights Act, one that in addition to its previous protections also enshrines the right of voting by mail, restores to ex-felons the right to register and vote, removes the power to draw district lines from politicians and places it with nonpartisan commissions, invalidates photo ID laws, and requires that a reasonable number of polling stations and working polling machines be made available.
In a democracy that took democracy seriously, none of this would be controversial. In this democracy, the seven years since the Voting Rights Act fell have been met mostly with congressional silence. The Democrats have said little, the Republicans less. The GOP’s odds of victory rise as the participation of Black voters declines. But Democrats have no excuse.
If the party takes control of Congress in November, there will be an understandable push to prioritize issues like police reform or health care. And these things are critical. But nothing is more critical than passage of a new Voting Rights Act.
Seven years ago, Rep. John Lewis, one of the heroes of the 1965 campaign, surveyed the damage the court had done and asked plaintively, “Can history repeat itself?” The answer is yes. The struggle of 55 years ago tells us that’s a reason to despair.
And paradoxically, also a reason to hope.