As new Congress begins, federal-state connections are as important as ever
If the Supreme Court won't protect voting rights, Democrats will
In 1980, Paul Weyrich, a godfather of the modern conservative movement, let the cat out of the bag when he told a conference of conservative evangelical activists, "I don't want everybody to vote. ... Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
It was that ever-so-common secret in politics - the one everyone knows but no one is supposed to talk about. The fact is, preventing people from voting has arguably been a key part of the Republican playbook for decades - from voter roll purges to discriminatory voter ID laws. And that playbook just got a huge boost from the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued an opinion allowing Ohio's aggressive voting roll purges under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
Ohio Republicans have spent the past few years kicking more than a million people off of their voter rolls for not voting in recent elections and not responding to a notice by the state. Their goal was simple: to tilt elections in Republicans' favor by blocking communities of color from the ballot box, as Justice Sotomayor argued.
Such tactics are clearly discriminatory and have no place in our democracy. What's more, the court's decision to allow these tactics overturned longstanding Justice Department policy that had been followed by both Republican and Democratic administrations.
As someone who joined one of the amicus briefs in this case, I can't overstate the disastrous consequences of the court's decision. This is a devastating attack on our democracy that will only embolden Republican voter suppression efforts across the country.
When I served as head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Obama, we carried on a bipartisan legacy of respecting and enforcing the NVRA, which specifically barred practices that result in states purging individuals for failing to vote. But last year, Jeff Sessions and the Trump Justice Department bucked decades of precedent and bipartisan support by reversing the department's position on this critical issue. Time after time, this administration has thrown the rights of voters out the window in service to craven and partisan ambitions.
Of course, Republicans have continued to claim their efforts are about preventing "voter fraud." But the American people aren't fooled. They see these attacks for what they are: a blatant power grab by a Republican party that wants to make it harder for people to vote.
Since Republicans know they can't win on the issues, they've decided to game the system and apparently try to block voters they think won't support them. This is politics at its most cynical and dangerous. The solution isn't to effectively bar many African American and Latino voters from the polls - it's to speak to the values that we all share and organize in these communities to build diverse coalitions of voters.
That's exactly what the Democratic party is doing. Democrats believe we should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder. We know our democracy is stronger when more people can participate. And we've made it our priority to ensure that each and every eligible voter can exercise their right to vote without intimidation or restrictions.
Over the past year, the DNC has taken on President Trump's sham "voter fraud" commission, which has since been disbanded. We've expanded our Civic Engagement and Voter Protection Department under the leadership of Karen Carter Peterson and provided voters with more information and legal resources at the ballot box. We've set up a hotline where voters can report instances of voter suppression and get more information about voting in their state. We're helping campaigns challenge voter suppression cases in court, and we're working day-in and day-out to bolster voter protection and registration efforts across the country. And earlier this year, we launched the IWillVote program, where we're working with state parties and Democratic allies to reach 50 million voters by November about committing to vote.
The Supreme Court's recent decision is a setback, but this battle is far from over. It's never been more important for us to organize and fight back. Make no mistake: Voting is the most important civil rights issue of our era - because the right to vote preserves all other rights. Democrats will do everything we can to protect that right for all Americans, even if Republicans and the conservative Supreme Court justices won't.
Tom Perez is the chair of the Democratic National Committee. During the Obama administration, Perez served as head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and then as secretary of Labor. Follow him on Twitter @TomPerez.