Jan. 6 attack on multiracial democracy requires Senate to protect freedom to vote

Last year’s assault on the U.S. Capitol is not over. While our nation grows more diverse each day, the attack on multiracial democracy continues today through schemes to suppress votes across the nation. 

In 2021, Georgia, Florida, Texas and 16 other states enacted 24 laws restricting access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The most popular restrictions make voter registration more difficult, expand opportunities to purge voters from the rolls, make it harder to vote by mail, limit early voting, reduce polling place availability and enact more restrictive photo ID requirements.

Granted, these new voting restrictions are not as graphic as largely white insurrectionists parading Confederate flags and using violence to storm the Capitol in an attempt to overturn legitimate election results. However, we must not dismiss this wave of voting restrictions as typical partisan bickering over regulatory minutiae. The last 12 months alone accounted for one-third of restrictive state voting laws enacted in the last decade. 

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Just like the Jan. 6 attack, the new voting restrictions seek to thwart the will of our diverse nation and are fueled by the false premise that the 2020 election was stolen from former President TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE

For example, the Georgia restrictions criminalize passing out water and food to voters waiting in line, even though the average wait time in Georgia was eight times longer for voters at 90 percent non-white polling places than for voters at 90 percent white polling places after the scheduled 7 p.m. poll-closing time. Black absentee voting surged past white absentee voting for the first time in Georgia in 2020, and the new law cuts in half the time to apply for an absentee ballot, limits the number of absentee ballot drop boxes, and imposes more stringent voter ID requirements on absentee ballots. 

Similarly, the new Florida restrictions limit the use of drop boxes for mail ballots, limit who can collect and drop off mail ballots and add more ID requirements for those requesting mail ballots.

The Texas restrictions ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting — two innovations adopted in 2020 to alleviate long lines in Harris County (Houston) where the population is over 70 percent people of color. The Texas restrictions also put new restrictions on people providing assistance to voters (such as Spanish language translation), increase vote-by-mail ID requirements and ban drop boxes for mail ballots.  

Perhaps the most anti-democratic provisions would allow partisan state legislators to intervene to shape election outcomes. For example, state legislators in Arizona, Missouri and Nevada introduced bills that would effectively empower the state legislature to certify the election and overturn the will of the people. The newly enacted Georgia law removes the secretary of state as the state election board chair and empowers the state legislature to elect the chair, and it authorizes the election board to replace local election officials. So far, six county election boards in Georgia have been reorganized, several Black Democrats have been removed and new local voting restrictions have been enacted such as the elimination of Sunday voting in Spalding County.  

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To be sure, states have an important role in crafting election rules. But when state politicians manipulate voting rules to subvert democracy, Congress must protect the freedom to vote — particularly in federal elections and when state election rules discriminate against people of color.  

Right now, the most urgent priority is for the U.S. Senate to pass federal legislation protecting the freedom to vote. The U.S. House has already passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to prevent discriminatory voting rules, and would almost certainly pass the Freedom to Vote Act to set minimum national standards for voting access.  

While these two bills have majority support in the Senate, they are currently stymied by the filibuster — a procedural rule that segregationists historically used to block civil rights bills. The Senate should create a democracy carve-out to the filibuster so that it can pass the two bills by a simple majority vote — as is the case with the confirmation of federal judges and executive branch officials, budget reconciliation, trade agreements, military base closings and many other topics.

If the Senate fails to act to prevent voter suppression, it will only strengthen the entitlement that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Emboldened, opponents of multiracial democracy will assume they have free reign to marginalize voters of color, and if challenged simply discredit voters of color as illegitimate, corrupt or unable to follow rules. This same sense of entitlement that we saw when Derek Chauvin assumed he could murder George Floyd in broad daylight without consequence. 

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The Senate must protect the future of American multiracial democracy and pass federal legislation to protect the freedom to vote.  

Spencer Overton is the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, America’s Black think tank  He is also a tenured professor at The George Washington Law School and the author of the book “Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression.” 

This piece has been updated to reflect the status of the Freedom to Vote Act.