Voting Rights: Pushback Against the Republican Assault on Democracy

Second in an ongoing series, Lessons Learned, Post-Trump

The ground shifted under America in a profound way during Donald Trump’s tenure. That is to say, while for nearly two-and-a-half centuries Americans have understood that We the People elect our leaders — with an ever-expanding wave of population groups fighting for their franchise — Trump, though he talked a populist game, revealed himself the proto-autocrat with his frontal assault on democracy itself — most egregiously, his refusal to accept the loss of his 2020 re-election bid and his inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on 6 Jan. Trump is still out campaigning on the theme that Joe Biden, his duly elected successor, “stole” the election.

While Trump’s tenure was mercifully short, his assault on the franchise — motive engine of American Democracy — goes on, carried out by the Republican party who, having lost the popular vote in seven (7) of the last eight presidential elections, must now, to stay in power, try to rewire that engine room and rewrite the rules governing who can participate.

Thus the GOP’s multi-pronged assault on voting rights at the state and local level, a drive that The New York Times calls “extraordinary.” As of March, per the Brennan Center for Justice (New York University School of Law), GOP legislators in 47 states introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions — a 43% jump over the previous month of 253 such bills. An embarrassment of such bills has been introduced, as expected, in conservative bastions: Texas (49), Georgia (25), Arizona (23). Of these, five have been enacted.

What’s restricted? Per the Brennan Center, “most restrictive bills take aim at absentee voting, while nearly a quarter seek stricter voter ID requirements. State lawmakers also aim to make voter registration harder, expand voter roll purges or adopt flawed practices that would risk improper purges, and cut back on nearly voting.” Astonishingly, some bills aim at establishing criminal penalties for local officials who fail to purge their rolls.

This legislative activity all flows from Trump’s lies of a “stolen” election, even though federal officials assert 2020 was “the most secure election in American history.” In pursuit of a solution to a problem that, with vanishingly few exceptions, does not exist, Republicans claim their efforts to restrict participation is all about “election security,” yet somehow they always focus on restricting people of color. Says a Brennan Center counsel, “There is no subtlety and no attempt to obfuscate what is going on here.”

Georgia is the state most in the news in the restrictive sweepstakes: Its Republican-controlled legislature, reacting to the upset victory of Democrats taking both U.S. Senate seats in a run-off election in January (which its Secretary of State certified secure), recently enacted restrictive legislation that, per the Brennan Center, “targets Black voters with uncanny accuracy.” Doing so, Republicans created a firestorm: What caught the nation’s eye was a prohibition on providing food or water to voters standing in line, sometimes for hours. President Joe Biden calls the law “sick” and “un-American.”

While conservative voices, most notably The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, claim the Georgia law is not as restrictive as liberals assert, it is the case that the thrust of all this GOP legislative activity in the states is to restrict voting, especially of minorities. In Georgia, the sliver of votes now restricted is the sliver that turned this red state blue.

Still: Pushback to these anti-democratic moves is afoot. These counter-forces include:

One: Some states, re voting rights, are introducing expansive legislation.

Not much focused on by the media, which had a field day with Georgia’s prohibition on food and drink for voters, is the even great counter-force of states introducing legislation that expands the franchise: As of March, 843 bills with expansive provisions have been introduced in 47 states (up from 704 in February). To be sure, it’s Democratic-controlled states spearheading the introduction of such bills: New York (12), Maryland (11), Connecticut (10), Rhode Island (7). Of these, nine have already been signed into law.

What’s expanded? Per the Brennan Center, more than a third of these bills address absentee voting, while more than a fifth seek to ease voter registration. States also seek to expand access to early voting and restore voting rights to people with past convictions.

Two: Congress is preparing legislation to counter states’ restrictive laws.

In pursuit of election reform, House Democrats introduced legislation — H.R. 1 (For the People Act) and the new Voting Rights Act (honoring late civil rights icon John Lewis) — before the 2020 campaign. But now, given the startling GOP drive in the states to restrict voter participation, passing these federal bills becomes imperative. Veteran political analyst Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic: “It’s no exaggeration to say that future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary.”

H.R. 1 would reverse many of the restrictive policies advancing in the red states. As Brownstein writes: “The bill would require all states to provide online, automatic, and same-day registration; ensure at least 15 days of in-person early voting; provide all voters with access to no-excuse, postage-free absentee ballots; and offer drop boxes where they can return those ballots. It would also end gerrymandering by requiring every state to create independent commissions for congressional redistricting and by defining national criteria to govern the process.” It would also limit “dark” money campaign spending. As for the new VRA, it is a response to the Supreme Court’s misguided 2013 Shelby County decision, which, with America become “post-racial” with Barack Obama’s election, invalidated the original VRA’s requirement that states with a history of discriminatory voting practices receive “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department to make changes to their election laws that could disenfranchise minority voters.

When do these crucial bills come up for final vote? H.R. 1 and the new VRA have both passed the House — with all Democrats voting for them and no Republican votes for H.R. 1 and just one Republican vote for the new VRA. To pass the Senate, both would face a Republican filibuster; thus all the media hoopla around two Democrats from red states — Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) — and the evolution of their thinking on filibusters, so who knows when? Mitch McConnell, Republican minority leader, calls H.R. 1 “a radical half-baked socialist proposal” and an improper federal overreach into state prerogatives. In the states, GOP legislators signal they will fight this overreach —another unsettling development. When will Republicans recognize they are dismantling American Democracy? When will Manchin/Sinema get this about the GOP?

Three: Corporate America is taking a stand against voter suppression.

The wild card — and a welcome one — is the sudden entry of Corporate America into the debate on voting rights. With the media hoopla about Georgia’s restrictive bill becoming law, corporate giants based in Georgia — Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Home Depot — jointly took a public stand against the new law, creating hoopla of its own. Also protesting the Georgia law, 72 Black corporate leaders, led by American Express former chief executive Kenneth Chenault and Merck chief exec Kenneth Frazier, took out full-page ads in major media. Chenault and Frazier then appealed to Corporate America to step up — which it did this week in a major way: with a two-page ad, “We Stand for Democracy,” defending voting rights across the country and signed by marquee corporations like Amazon, Apple, Bank of America, Facebook, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Netflix, Starbucks, Twitter, plus rafts of individuals and non-governmental organizations.

Sports got activist, too: In protest to the restrictive Georgia law, Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. And “Big Law” is also weighing in.

But: Caveat emptor (or “Buyer beware” as they say in business). It remains to be seen how steadfast these corporate players will remain when Republicans apply the full force of their threats (no more tax breaks or subsidies) or pound home their case of Democratic overreach, i.e., the higher corporate tax rates coming at them. Will they then still “stand for democracy”? For a Black corporate executive, voting rights is a premier civil rights issue, but for others, it may be merely political, a matter of temporal advantage or favor. Activist groups like New Georgia Project point out “the Big Three” — Coca-Cola, Delta, Home Depot — had to be threatened with boycotts before they took a stand, also all three chief executives had donated to the governor (Brian Kemp) signing the restrictive bill. (Other activists like Stacey Abrams do not support hurtful measures like boycotts.)

If Corporate America is smart, it will fully commit to defending voting rights for all Americans — who are also customers, whose demographic makeup is increasingly diverse. Astonishingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just came out a No, urging Senators to vote against voting rights(!). However, NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill is hopeful business will realize that it can’t be “agnostic” on this matter.

What’s significant here is that Corporate America, in taking this stand, calls into question the traditional bond between itself and the GOP. This breach should be exploited by Democrats. It will be instructive to see which party Corporate America donates to going forward.

What’s also significant, and helpful, is that the battle lines are now crystal-clear: Either you are for every American citizen having the franchise — or you are not. How blind of the GOP, when, having done remarkably well with minorities in the 2020 election, they now seek to do them in? Citing the left for “virtue signaling,” the GOP sees this battle as political (“owning the libs”), but for Democrats, it as existential: saving American Democracy. The GOP, a dying party, must try every tactic to stay alive.

David Frum, a Never-Trump conservative and Atlantic writer, recently declared on “Firing Line” that any party whose practice of the “art of politics” depends on disenfranchising voters cannot survive. Adds this heartbroken Republican: “It’s wrong.”

Republican assault on voting rights, fueled by Donald Trump’s lies of a stolen election, continues apace and will likely increase in ferocity as the next election nears. But denying the vote to any member of We the People, the demos, is on its face profoundly anti-democratic. Counter-forces to the assault are actively in play: expansive voting legislation introduced in the states, Congress deliberating the For the People Act and new Voting Rights Act, and now Corporate America weighing in. The right to vote is “preservative of all other rights” and must itself be preserved. We must not lose — or, truly, we lose American Democracy. Every last hand on deck! We can do this.

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.