After the past year and a half, thinking about another election might be the last thing you want to do.
I am right there with you.
As much as I wish we could take a well-earned break from doom and gloom and enjoy our Seattle summer, we can’t ignore the looming threat to civil rights and democracy in the form of voter suppression bills that are sweeping the country.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, between Jan. 1 and May 14, 14 states passed 22 laws to restrict voting rights, a yearly record already — and the year wasn’t even half over. In addition, 61 bills were progressing through legislatures nationwide. Ironically, the measures are being fueled by a false belief that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” the same belief that led to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Most of the laws make it more difficult to vote absentee and by mail, but eight states have passed legislation to implement barriers to traditional, in-person voting as well. These efforts are a backlash to the record 2020 election turnout where a majority of voters used nontraditional methods to cast ballots, according to the Census Bureau.
“Nontraditional” methods of voting are the norm in Washington state and Oregon, and have been for years. With an all-mail system, Oregon is ranked No. 1 and Washington No. 2 in terms of ease of voting, according to a study by several universities.
You might be thinking, “why should Washington residents care about voter suppression in other parts of the country? We have a good system here, why should we care about what other states are doing?”
The reason is that voter suppression in places like Georgia or Texas is not only unjust and unconscionable on principle, but it can also unfairly undermine the will of the people and put a finger on the scales of democracy, which affects us all.
Further, as we know, these measures target people of color, specifically Black voters, a tactic that has a long and reprehensible history in our country. Historically, those who wanted to block the political power of African Americans used terror, massacres, poll taxes, literacy tests and myriad other tactics to achieve their goals.
Newly elected Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock laid out the stakes in a speech on the Senate floor in March, saying, “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”
Warnock reminded senators that these tactics are nothing new. “To be sure we have seen these kinds of voter suppression tactics before. They are part of a long and shameful history in Georgia and throughout our nation.” But, he said, Georgians and others across the country refused to be counted out and stood in voting lines for five, six sometimes 10 hours, in what he said amounted to a modern-day poll tax of underpaid workers forced to lose wages just so they could exercise their right to vote.
To make it worse, one of the most draconian of the new laws would prevent people in Georgia from offering food or drink to voters waiting in those long lines.
There are some efforts underway to push back against voting restrictions. On the federal level, two measures are proposed to create a foundation for voting rights across the country. The most sweeping one, the For the People Act, passed the House in March. Along with changes to ethics rules and campaign finance laws, it would create a national baseline of voting rights, such as “mandating automatic and same-day voter registration, no-excuse mail-in voting and early voting.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer said he would bring the measure to the floor of the Senate by the end of this month, but the bill’s chances are dim.
The reason, of course, is the filibuster. Under the rules as they stand, 60 senators would need to support the bill in order for it to pass, a near impossibility given the lack of GOP support.
Some lawmakers raised the possibility of eliminating the filibuster or, alternately, creating a carve out that would allow a simple majority for voting rights legislation, but Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has expressed reservations about a carve out and remains opposed to filibuster reform and is the only Democrat not to sign on to the bill.
The other federal measure under consideration is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, or H.R.4, which is a more modest effort to reinstate a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires states to receive federal “preclearance” to change voting rules — a provision the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. Yet while the provision was part of a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act that was supported by all senators who voted in 2006, this time it failed to receive any GOP support beyond Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
These measures have a long way to go before they become law, but a critical step is for a weary public to pay attention to the erosion of voting rights and push for the protections they want to see.
As Warnock said in his speech, letting voter suppression rule the day would be to create “Democracy in reverse. Rather than voters being able to pick the politicians, the politicians are trying to cherry-pick their voters. I say this cannot stand.”