Republicans must stop sabotaging voting rights

“A man without a vote is a man without protection,” Lyndon Johnson once said. “And the vote is the most powerful instrument designed by man for breaking down injustice.”

These days, Republicans in state legislatures and the United States Congress are depriving lots of Americans of the protection and power that come with casting a ballot.

It hasn’t always been that way. 

Until recently, the parties did not differ that much about extending the right to vote to all eligible Americans: 30 of 32 Republicans in the U.S. Senate supported the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which authorized the federal government to ensure that Blacks could register and vote in jurisdictions with a history of restricting their access to the polls. Republicans played an essential role in breaking a filibuster of the bill by southern Democrats.

In 2006, all 17 Republicans who are still in the Senate in 2022 voted to reauthorize the bill. “One of my favorite sayings is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared at the time. “This is a good piece of legislation that has served an important purpose over many, many years … And this landmark piece of legislation will continue to make a difference not only in the South but for all America, and for all of us, whether we are African Americans or not.” 

Bi-partisan agreement to protect and promote the right to vote, however, is gone.

Although President Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security concluded that the election of 2020 was “the most secure in American history,” and no evidence of widespread fraud has subsequently been uncovered, the Republican-controlled legislatures of 19 states passed 34 laws restricting voting in 2021. Provisions included shortening the time voters may apply for mail-in ballots and the deadlines for delivering them as well as prohibiting individuals from assisting voters, including disabled people, in completing and returning ballots.

Several states — Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Texas — launched illegitimate partisan reviews of election results, raising concerns that they were setting the stage to suppress votes and subvert outcomes in 2022 and beyond. Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Tennessee legislators have pre-filed similar initiatives. Some legislators advocate transferring election oversight from, say, a Democratic secretary of state to a Republican attorney general; some want their legislature to have final say in certifying election results.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) recently proposed the creation of a 52-member “Office of Election Crimes and Security,” staffed with 20 police officers, to “conduct pro-active information gathering” and “investigate, detect, apprehend, and arrest” individuals suspected of violating election laws. Reporting to Florida’s department of state, which in turn reports to the governor, the new unit, critics fear, could be politicized and weaponized. “We’ve had almost zero fraud, almost zero problems,” declared Cecile Scoon, president of the Florida League of Women Voters. “When you create an office to stamp out something, they are going to look for it [election fraud] — even if there’s nothing there.”

In Georgia, David Perdue, who is challenging incumbent Brian Kemp for the Republican nomination for governor, said last week that he would not have certified the results of the 2020 president election in the state — and endorsed the establishment of an election police force for Georgia modeled on DeSantis’s proposal.

As we all know, many Republicans in the U.S. Congress refused to accept the results certified by governors of several states and the Electoral College. And Republican senators have blocked every voting rights initiative introduced by Democrats. Sen. McConnell now thinks re-authorizing the 1965 Voting Rights bill is not “about promoting justice, it’s about short-circuiting justice.” Deriding the “fake hysteria over voting rights,” he has dismissed Democratic legislation as a “federal takeover” of elections in the United States.

Except for Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Senate Republicans have filibustered legislation that would make Election Day a federal holiday; mandate early voting (which now exists in some form in 44 states and the District of Columbia) for at least 15 days; accept debit cards, utility bills, and bank statements as valid identification; ban partisan gerrymandering and allow the Department of Justice to challenge redistricting maps proposed by states; increase protection against intimidation by poll watchers; and require state officials to set forth rules for audits.

Distinctions between “formal freedom” and “effective freedom” can — and should — be applied to voting regulations in the United States. Citizens may have the formal freedom to cast a ballot, but if they have to travel long distances to polling places, wait in line for hours, and lose a day’s work, their right is more limited than it ought to be.

“A politician thinks of the next election,” James Freeman Clarke once said. “A statesman of the next generation.” When it comes to voting rights, we desperately need more Republican statesmen and stateswomen.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags Black voters Brian Kemp David Perdue Donald Trump Election integrity Elections in the United States Lisa Murkowski minority voters Mitch McConnell Politics Republican Party Ron DeSantis Voter suppression Voting Rights Act

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