“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Congress had reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 by a 98-0 Senate vote and a gaping 390-33 tally in the House, but in 2013 the Supreme Court’s conservative justices voted 5-4 to strike down its key pre-authorization provision.
The result has been predictable ― systematic disenfranchisement of voters across the South and beyond, undoubtedly contributing to the defeat of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Florida and Georgia (the latter is still being contested), and perhaps even enabling Ted Cruz in Texas to keep his Senate seat.
Now that Democrats have reclaimed the House and key governor’s mansions, and flipped hundreds of state legislative seats, we have a chance to do something about it. It’s time for them to go all-in on the universal right to transparent and accessible voting.
Re-reading the Roberts decision the day after the 2018 midterms is brutal. He blithely assures America that the days of Jim Crow are over and that the “current conditions” in no way resemble those of 1965. He writes that “while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Because of that perceived mismatch, he claimed, he and his four colleagues took the “gravest and most delicate duty” of the Supreme Court and struck down a law as unconstitutional. He said that racism was still bad, of course, but that Congress would have to come up with some new rubric to protect the franchise of voters of color.
Congress, or rather the Republicans who have maintained control of at least one chamber of Congress since 2013, has not developed a new rubric. Instead, Republican lawmakers and officials, especially those in the very states governed by the VRA, have touted the nonexistent threat of voter fraud in order to systematically re-disenfranchise voters of color through a variety of means.
Some of their techniques are almost laughable, such as the preposterous claim to have “forgotten” power cords for the few voting machines sent to a precinct in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Others are dangerous, such as when Georgia police allegedly started harassing Democrats working to get out the vote. Mostly, though, the tactics are simple. Pass voter ID laws. Question every black registration. Close polling locations. Make the remaining locations remote, inaccessible, understaffed and under-equipped. Pour resources into voting sites in conservative districts. Reap the electoral rewards. These tactics have, regrettably, worked to ensure Republicans can continue their white minority rule.
I wish we had transformed our voting system in 2009 after President Barack Obama took office, but there are many would-be priorities that slipped away during that brief window of total Democratic control. Once the 2010 midterms sailed by with massive Republican victories, we were well on our way to the undermining of democracy through virulent gerrymandering and widespread suppression.
Now it’s time to turn the tables. Instead of seeking nefarious benefits, though, Democrats are in luck that the party does best when they do what’s right. The more people receive their justly due franchise, in general, the more Democrats are elected. But Democrats should push for voting rights everywhere, rather than targeting potential strongholds, because the very nature of our democratic system of government depends on it.
The new House majority should draft clearly written (i.e., short) legislation that mandates automatic registration for all eligible voters and simple but radical measures like universal vote-by-mail. Then, Democrats should attach it to everything that comes out of the House, no matter how mundane. Why not make use of all the bills that pass without debate, like renaming a Texas courthouse or a post office in Florida or Virginia? While they are at the newly dubbed “U.S. Navy Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby Post Office” in Palmyra, Virginia, let’s make sure people can use the facility to send in their ballot without needing to take off work.
Republicans will cry foul and raise the specter of fraud, but right now the left can rebroadcast scenes from Tuesday’s election of lines snaking around the block and ballots rejected or altered, and take up the mantle of the defenders of democracy itself. Heck, remote balloting even saves money on staffing polling places and buying expensive machines, so it’s yet another argument that the Democrats are the party of fiscal prudence.
We’ve got to do the same thing in every state and county that we can. Wisconsin’s new governor-elect, Tony Evers, must turn from defeating Scott Walker to fighting his heavily gerrymandered legislature that remains deep red. Walker’s voter ID regime arguably threw the state to Donald Trump in 2016; that can’t happen again. Michigan’s new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, faces similar challenges, though there’s less evidence its ID law swung the state in 2016.
Even polar opposites Kansas and New York can come into play. In the former, vote-suppressor-in-chief Kris Kobach lost the governor’s race to Democratic rival Laura Kelly. We’re not going to see Kansas turn blue in the next presidential election, but she has to fight Kobach’s legacy because Kansas’ citizens deserve free and fair elections. On the bluer end of the spectrum, New York’s backward voting laws have contributed to preventing the state from being the progressive forerunner it should be. Precinct by precinct, let’s reclaim our democracy.
Can we get a new Voting Rights Act through the Senate and onto Trump’s desk? Would he sign it? Would the Supreme Court toss this one out as well? That’s a fight I’m eager to see the Democrats take on.
Force the GOP to own its position as a minority party supported only by vote suppression. Make transparency, accessibility and universality of the franchise the watchword of the new Democratic House majority. It’s politically smart. It’s also the right thing to do. It’s too rare that ethics and savvy come together when talking about politics, so seize the moment.
David Perry is a historian and journalist. He works at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter: @lollardfish