Why we need to protect voting rights


In 2021, Republican legislatures in 19 states passed 34 laws that restricted voting access in more than a dozen different ways. And these are only the bills that have succeeded; hundreds of other provisions, some of which are still under consideration, have been introduced across the country.

“The momentum around this legislation continues,” the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks these efforts, wrote on its website. At least 165 restrictive ballot bills were already on the agenda for this year as of mid-January. “These early indicators, coupled with the ongoing mobilization around the Big Lie (the same false rhetoric about voter fraud that led [last] unprecedented wave of vote suppression bills) – suggest that efforts to restrict and undermine voting will continue to be a serious threat in 2022.”

The GOP has justified voting restrictions by saying it protects elections against fraud and that some protections against electoral bias are no longer needed. The evidence belies this ploy to seize power by disenfranchising voters, especially minorities, who tend to vote Democratic. Voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States and has not increased since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But minority voting has grown tremendously, and the benefits of federal oversight have persisted. Alarmed by this trend, conservative lawmakers and jurists began decades ago to roll back codified voting rights. They are expected to gain even more ground in this year’s midterm elections if left unchecked.

While heinous lies about a stolen election propelled the current wave of restrictions, the path that led to this point was set back in 2013. In the case of Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a key pillar of the Voting Rights Act called “pre-clearance,” which required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to seek Justice Department or Federal Court approval for any planned changes election rules. Arguing that patterns of discrimination had changed, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that Congress should not use “a formula based on 40-year-old facts that have no logical connection to the present.” .

Desmond Ang, a public policy and race expert at Harvard University, disagrees, saying preclearance is as essential to civil rights today as it has ever been. According to an analysis he published in 2019, this pivotal provision of the Voting Rights Act alone “has continued to strengthen empowerment more than four decades later,” especially among minorities. The benefits were so long-lasting, he wrote, that “broad preventive monitoring encompassing the universe of potential vote changes may be the most effective way to combat discrimination in settings like the United States, where electoral rule-making is highly decentralized and opaque”.

Along the same lines, sociologists Nicholas Pedriana and Robin Stryker concluded in a 2017 comparative analysis that of three basic civil rights laws passed in the 1960s – the Voting Rights Act, the fair housing and the equal employment opportunity provisions of the Civil Rights Act – the Voting Rights Act has been the most successful in promoting equality. Its success depended largely on what the researchers called group-centered effects, which focus on systemic disadvantage rather than individual harm, discriminatory consequences rather than intent, and reparation group outcomes rather than justice for individual victims or wrongdoers. Removing this legislative framework produces the opposite effect, says Stryker: a very effective and systematic suppression of minority votes.

In January, Democrats’ best efforts to date to fend off the current onslaught of voting restrictions — the Free Voting Act and the John R. Lewis Advancing Voting Rights Act — failed in the Senate. The former would have set national standards for ballot access and hindered other forms of electoral bias such as gerrymandering. The latter would have overturned the 2013 Supreme Court ruling on preclearance as well as another last year that made it harder to challenge election rules in court on grounds of discrimination. The bills contained the kind of large-scale preventative strategies that have been so effective in fostering racial equality at the very heart of our democratic system. Ang and Stryker mourned their passing and conceded it’s hard not to despair in the face of intense political polarization.

For decades, the Voting Rights Act enjoyed bipartisan support. Not anymore. Yet we must restore and expand federal oversight and jurisdiction over biased election rules. Until then, it is up to social justice movements and anyone who cares about the most basic democratic rights to keep the pressure on. As sociologist Aldon Morris wrote for us in February 2021, “When President Lyndon B. Johnson formally ended the Jim Crow era by signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he did because massive protests were raging in the streets. forced him.


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