In the US, the right-wing voter suppression efforts reached a level not seen since the era of segregation, when white supremacists in the South had passed laws to deny Black Americans the right to vote and threatened everyone who dared to resist with violence.
The nation is now divided between people who want a multiracial democracy in which every American is allowed and encouraged to vote and those who yearn for an anti-democratic system in which an extremist white minority has unchecked control over everyone else. The latter group is represented by the Republican Party, which is brazenly waging a cold civil war by pushing for unprecedented voter suppression measures targeting minority and marginalised communities.
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In response to the Democratic Party’s victory in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections, Republican-controlled state legislatures have proposed 253 bills in 43 states that aim to prevent millions of Americans, and especially Americans of colour, from voting in federal and state elections.
In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp signed a law on March 25 that will, among other things, curtail early voting, shorten the length of runoff elections – such as the two Georgia Senate runoff elections in the past election cycle that allowed the Democrats to control the Senate – and make it a crime to provide food or water to people waiting in line to vote. In predominantly Black and Brown Georgia communities, voters waited in line for up to eight hours in the 2020 elections, so these new measures could leave thousands of them unable or unwilling to vote in future elections.
The law also makes producing a photo ID mandatory for absentee voting and gives the Republican-controlled state legislature more control over the administration of elections. According to critics, by expanding the state legislature’s influence over the election process, and making it easier for them to remove state and local election officials refusing to collaborate with them, the law makes it easier for the Republicans to overturn legitimate election results that are not favourable to their party and agenda.
Similarly, Florida Republicans are pushing for perplexing voting restrictions, which are trying to fix “problems” that do not exist. Senate Bill 90, the main vehicle for Republican-led voter suppression in the state, for example, proposes to ban the use of ballot drop boxes, to prohibit anyone other than an immediate family member from helping a voter return a mail-in ballot, and to make a request for a mail-in ballot valid for only one election cycle instead of two. Republicans claim all these measures are necessary to prevent election fraud, even though they themselves admit that none of these has ever caused any significant irregularities in voting in past elections. If this bill becomes law, however, it is clear that it would disfranchise many Black and other minority voters, and give the Republicans an advantage.
In Wisconsin, whose prior voter suppression measures have impacted Black and student voters in urban areas, the Republicans are floating a bill that would change requirements for indefinitely confined voters, institute stricter voter ID laws, and bar election funding from private organisations, among a variety of other things.
In Texas, once again under the guise of protecting “election integrity”, bills have been proposed to increase the use of “poll watchers” – something that raises the spectre of state-sanctioned voter intimidation. These bills also aim to limit mail-in and curbside voting, restrict officials from offering unsolicited ballots and require people with disabilities to produce a note from a doctor or a government agency to vote absentee – measures that would disproportionately affect voters who are more likely to vote against the Republicans.
In Arizona, a Republican lawmaker, Shawnna Bolick, introduced a bill that grants the legislature the ability to revoke the secretary of state’s certification of the presidential election results at any time before the inauguration of a new president. Democratic lawmakers said if the Republican legislature passes the bill, they will work to defeat it by public referendum. The state already has laws in place that restrict minority communities’ ability to vote. The Democrats already took two voting provisions – a policy that requires an entire ballot to be thrown out if the ballot was cast at the wrong precinct, and a state law that bans the collection of ballots by third parties, sometimes called “ballot harvesting” – to the Supreme Court claiming that they discriminate against racial minorities in the state.
Iowa, too, enacted a law to preserve “election integrity” and combat election fraud, despite no widespread election fraud being witnessed in the state in recent history. The law reduces the early voting period from 29 days to 20 days, closes polling sites at 8pm rather than 9pm, and requires that mail-in ballots are received by Election Day, rather than postmarked by that day. And voters who do not vote in a single election are purged from the voter roll if they fail to reregister or report a change of address.
Only federal intervention can stem this tide of voter suppression and thwart the efforts of numerous states to undermine the electoral process and democracy.
The Democrats in Congress are already pushing for a federal voting rights bill that would expand federal control of local election rules.
The For the People Act aims to introduce universal same-day and automatic voter registration, ease voter ID requirements and expand voting by mail and early voting. The act would also end the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and reform campaign finance and government ethics laws. Another bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – named after the late civil rights leader and member of Congress – will restore the Voting Rights Act and combat voter suppression and racially discriminatory election laws. “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes,” said the recently elected Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, while urging his colleagues to pass this legislation.
Endangering the passage of this crucial bill are the antiquated, undemocratic rules and structures of the US Senate, which amplify the power of rural, less populous and former slaveholding states.
Specifically, a senate rule called the filibuster, which requires 60 votes rather than a simple majority to pass legislation, is being used by the Republicans to block Democratic efforts to prevent state-level voter suppression. In the past, this rule was used by white supremacist lawmakers to uphold slavery and racial segregation, deny the rights of Black Americans and block anti-lynching laws. Now it is the most efficient tool they have to stop the Biden administration from passing the For The People Act. Democrats must change this rule if they have any chance of implementing a pro-democracy, pro-voting rights agenda. President Joe Biden recently lambasted the filibuster and depicted it as a relic of the Jim Crow era in the once-segregated South. Yet it is still not clear whether he will be able to annul this rule.
Republicans are intent on holding on to power at all costs, like the Afrikaners in apartheid South Africa. The former party of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation has decided that the best way of dealing with the country’s changing demographics and the growing rejection of their core policies is to deny basic citizenship rights to large swaths of the population. And they are not even trying to hide the fact that they only want a specific subset of Americans, who support them and their discriminatory policies, to have a say on the country’s future.
Earlier this month, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, for example, criticised Democratic efforts to expand access to voting by baselessly claiming that such moves would provide voting rights to “illegal aliens” and “child molesters”. He then revealed the real reason behind his objection: If that happens, he said “[the Democrats] will win and maintain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and of the state legislatures for the next century.”
Around the same time, in a Supreme Court hearing on Arizona voting restrictions, a lawyer representing the Arizona Republican Party explained why the suppression measures are necessary. “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” said lawyer Michael Carvin. “Politics is a zero-sum game. And every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretation of Section 2 hurts us, it’s the difference between winning an election 50-49 and losing an election 51 to 50.”
America travelled down this dangerous path before.
There were hopes for the establishment of multiracial democracy in America in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. In 1868, only three years after the end of the Civil war, South Carolina became the first US state to have a majority-Black state legislature. By 1877, when Reconstruction ended, it is estimated that as many as 2,000 Black men were holding public office across the country. But the country did not remain on this promising path for too long.
White supremacists swiftly retook control of the South through the anti-Black domestic terror, lynchings and assassinations of Black political leaders, and voter suppression laws including poll taxes and literacy tests. In some states, in order to vote, Black people had to answer ridiculous questions like how many bubbles were on a bar of soap or how many jelly beans were in a jar. Black people were denied the right to vote in the South until the civil rights movement led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Now, the US is repeating the mistakes of history. A right-wing mob tried to take over the US Capitol and deny the winner of a legitimate and just election the presidency. They failed, but now their lawmaker allies are trying to overturn the will of the people through legislation and deny millions of Americans the right to vote. The future of America is at stake.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.