Democrats Need To Pass Some Voting Rights Bills While We Still Have Voting Rights
It appears as if President Joe Biden has accepted that Democrats' chances of passing federal voting rights legislation have gone the way of Kyrsten Sinema's credibility. During private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights activists, White House officials and allies of the president have suggested that we can “out-organize voter suppression." The proof of such a claim seems lacking.
"I have heard an emphasis on organizing," said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who visited the Oval Office to meet with the president two weeks ago. But, she added, "we cannot litigate our way out of this and we cannot organize our way out of this."
We should clarify that Democrats “cannot litigate" their way out of the GOP's skinny repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment because Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are strident defenders of the legislative filibuster. This permits the GOP to block voting rights bills at the federal level while Republicans pass voter suppression bills with a simple majority at the state level. It really makes very little sense when you think about it.
Biden has given some impressive speeches about voting rights where he's said that “our democracy is in peril" from the GOP's voter suppression crusade. But voting rights activists argue that if this is true (and it is), then it makes no sense to allow "an arcane Senate procedural rule to derail efforts that a majority of Americans support."
Not only does a majority of Americans support the For the People Act, but a majority of likely Republican voters supports the bill. It's also not just 50.1 percent of Americans but 67 percent in recent polls, which is well beyond the 60 percent of senators necessary to overcome a filibuster. Sinema claimed that “durable, lasting results" require bipartisan consensus, and, well, there it is! The polls aren't lying.
But the reality is that Manchin, Sinema, and likely some other institutionalist Democrats hiding in the shadows won't budge on the filibuster, so we're left with trying to “out-organize" voter suppression and inspiring turnout among (mostly POC) voters who'll stand in long lines for hours without food or water, because like cold coffee in hell, Republicans thought of everything.
A Politico article describes how Democrats in Georgia have resorted to math instead of high hopes, and the results aren't encouraging.
The state's new voter I.D. requirement for mail-in ballots could affect the more than 270,000 Georgians lacking identification. The provision cutting the number of ballot drop boxes could affect hundreds of thousands of voters who cast absentee ballots that way in 2020 — and that's just in the populous Atlanta suburbs alone.
It didn't take long before the implications became clear to party officials and voting rights activists. In a state that Joe Biden carried by fewer than 12,000 votes last year, the new law stood to wipe out many of the party's hard-fought gains — and put them at a decisive disadvantage.
How exactly will Democrats “out-organize" legislation that was specifically crafted to fuck them? That remains unclear in the electoral Magic Eight Ball. Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a Michigan-based ballot initiative, said Republicans are actively "trying to peel away Democratic-leaning voters wherever they can. … It's sort of death by 1,000 cuts." A relevant example in Michigan is a Republican push to require additional steps for voters who cast ballots without a photo ID. (The GOP likely isn't interested in making photo IDs easier to obtain, of course.)
The Texas voter suppression bill bans drive-through voting and extended hours during early voting, which James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, calls a "direct attack on voters of color in particular," who benefited the most in 2020 from these methods of voting.
"I'm super worried," said Max Wood, founder and CEO of Deck, a progressive data analytics company that analyzes voting behavior. "I try to be optimistic, and I do think there are times when this kind of stuff can galvanize enthusiasm and turnout. … But I don't know that that will be enough, especially with how extreme some of these laws are."
What is the organizational response to shift workers having to take time off from work (if even possible) to vote during the deliberately scaled back hours? There isn't one. They will stay home because they prioritize food and shelter.
The situation is Georgia is especially dire because incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock has to defend his seat in 2022. Voting rights activists aren't anticipating a fair fight.
"If there isn't a way for us to repeat what happened in November 2020, we're fucked," said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the Stacey Abrams-founded New Georgia Project. "We are doing what we do to make sure that not only our constituents, our base, the people, the communities that we organize with, get it. We're trying to make sure that our elected officials get it as well."
Democrats can spend the next year and a half lecturing people about how they need to jump on the voter suppression grenade for “democracy," but it won't yield positive results. Kill the damn filibuster and pass legislation that will protect your constituents' right to vote.
"I don't think the Democratic Party as a whole is prioritizing this issue and its potential damage in the way that they should," said Doug Herman, who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns. "We just went through an insurrection that was stoked by voter fraud lies, and the reaction to that from the Republican Party is to restrict the voting process so severely that only their voters can participate. And I don't understand the lack of fierce resistance to that from Americans and Democrats."
Republicans have passed voter suppressions laws in at least 18 states since January 1. It's their soft insurrection, and it very well might work. We believe in putting a positive spin on tough situations, but we can't stick our heads in the sand, either. America is a democracy if you can keep it and only if you're willing to pull out all the stops to defend it.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."