Voter Suppression Ends Where Civic Participation Begins
by Seth Jacobson
After Biden’s inauguration, there was hope that the United States could go back to some sense of normalcy and focus on healing a divided nation. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Instead, we are now reckoning with attempts to dismantle democracy by restricting voting and providing tools to overturn election results—and what’s worse is that these efforts are going largely ignored.
In the wake of some Republican losses last November and the continuous discussion about “massive voter fraud,” several conservative groups have scrambled to enact voter suppression laws across the country. It may sound alarmist to call them “voter suppression laws,” but the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law counts 22 new laws—either restricting absentee, early, and mail-in voting, purging voter rolls, weakening voter registration efforts, or limiting valid forms of voter ID—across 14 states, with an additional 61 bills taking shape in 18 states. Overall, the only states where lawmakers haven’t yet introduced a restrictive voting bill are Delaware and Vermont.
Thus, it is neither partisan nor derogatory to say that the new "Trump Era" GOP is currently focused on voter suppression. It's simply fact.
These measures have been or are being introduced purely by Republican lawmakers. The states being hit the hardest are Arizona, Georgia, and Texas, all of which are traditionally-red states in which a surge of largely-minority voters help defeat (or came close to defeating) entrenched conservative interests in 2020. Thus, it is neither partisan nor derogatory to say that the new “Trump era” GOP is currently focused on voter suppression. It’s simply fact.
Earlier this month, a group of academics that included Ivy League political science and government professors wrote an open letter calling for increased federal voting protections to combat GOP efforts, which they characterized as “transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”
For their part, the federal government response has been underwhelming. Attorney General Merrick Garland laid out the DOJ plan to protect voting rights: publishing new guides on early voting, mail-in voting, and redistricting, as well as doubling the lawyers on staff at the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in order to aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help America Vote Act. But the fact of the matter is that, following the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Department of Justice doesn’t have the authority it used to, and several states have carte blanche to make any changes they want without preclearance.
On the legislative side, the For the People Act is dead in the water since the U.S. is nowhere near liberal enough to support automatic voter registration, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act will be subject to the filibuster, which means its chances in the Senate are only slightly above nil.
Where does that leave us?
Firstly, it leaves us with the grim knowledge that living in a democracy is not a spectator sport. The slow erosion of checks and balances, as well as the constant attacks on electoral integrity, are made possible by the fact that the majority of the American public treat politics as something to pay attention to once every four years—or at best, once every two years. During the Trump administration, constant high-stakes and high-coverage issues such as the so-called Muslim ban and attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act resulted in a constant state of public awareness and engagement. But with the expected return to the status quo under Biden, we risk slipping back into apathy and skimming headlines. If we are to build a truly democratic nation, participation must be constant, and so must the flow of information.
Firstly, it leaves us with the grim knowledge that living in a democracy is not a spectator sport.
Secondly, this ongoing movement to silence voters also leaves our country vulnerable to unrest. Realistically speaking, you cannot silence a population. You can disenfranchise them. You can even take away peaceful protest as an option, as various laws are already doing. But they won’t just sit there and watch their rights being taken away.
Our own Founders argued that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”
And when that happens, it happens by any means necessary.
This piece originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.