After moments of great trauma, our first instinct is to rest. The events following the November 2020 election, culminating in the insurrection on January 6, can best be described as a great trauma for our nation. It was only after the inauguration of President Biden that there could be a collective exhale, the sound of 81 million-plus people releasing pent-up anxiety over an unpeaceful transition of power. Our democracy, for the moment, was intact.
Yet, there is no time for rest. Opponents of democracy certainly are not resting. “Democracy,” as Winston Churchill said, “is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Democracy is demanding, as it relies on an educated and informed populace, an all-prevailing rule of law, and constant vigilance against those who wish to do it harm. Vigilance is what is required of us at this moment. We cannot get complacent, because in a democracy complacency is complicity. Thus, we must face head-on with all due severity the continued threat of our republic: voter suppression.
Feeding off of debunked lies about voter fraud in the 2020 election, state legislatures across the country have introduced bills that would restrict access to voting, specifically for BIPOC. Their justification is two-fold. 70 percent of Republicans believe that Former President Trump received more votes than President Biden in the 2020 election, necessitating voting “protection” laws. At the same time, many Republican politicians recognize their loss was due to massive turn out, especially of Black people in key states like Georgia, also necessitating voting “protection” laws (those who need protection in the latter case are the politicians who want to keep their jobs and power). The result of this double-edged sword is a mighty blow to the democratic system. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that, as of February 19, 2021, 253 bills with provisions to limit voting access have been pre-filed or introduced across 43 states. This is more than four times as many restrictive voter bills as at around this time last year.
These provisions attack people’s ability to vote from a variety of angles. Nearly half of the bills introduced seek to limit voting by mail. This includes restricting who can vote by mail, complicating the process of getting a mail-in ballot, and more stringent requirements for witnesses of signatures. The backlash against mail-in voting comes after Republicans point to mail-in ballots as a cesspool of voter fraud, which, as previously stated, has been disproven. This is an issue almost uniquely related to the 2020 election, after an estimated 46 percent of voters voted by mail, largely due to the on-going coronavirus pandemic. However, many other attempts to restrict voting are typical of the GOP’s strategy. At least 40 bills have been introduced to put into place new or more strict voter ID requirements. Also, at least 21 bills expand purges of voter rolls. All of these actions disproportionately impact POC and Black voters in particular.
While some of these measures have merely been introduced and are stalled in Democrat-majority state legislatures, in other states they are on their way to becoming law, if they have not already. Iowa’s governor signed into law on March 8 a bill aimed at limiting early voting, in a state where 70 percent of Democrats voted early in 2020. It cuts the early voting period from 29 to 20 days, closes polling sites at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., requires mail-in ballots to be received by Election Day instead of postmarked by that day, and removes voters from active voting lists if they do not vote in just one general election. Republicans cite the rules as efforts against voter fraud, although they also said there was no history of voting irregularities in Iowa, in 2020 or prior.
Another important example is Georgia, a new battleground state which flipped blue in both the presidential election and Senate runoffs, allowing for Democratic control of the Senate. Multiple bills have been introduced in the Georgia state legislature to restrict voting access, including limits on early voting, automatic voter registration, and drop boxes. One particular bill targets early weekend voting, an important period for church-organized groups of Black voters. John Cusick, an NAACP lawyer, warned, “All of these by themselves are challenging, and then when you start putting them together and you see the ways that they’re interacting, it just exacerbates all of the harms, especially for voters of color who are being disproportionately impacted.”
A final example is Arizona, another key swing state in 2020 and an area of dispute for Republicans. Almost two dozen voting restriction bills have been introduced in the Arizona legislature this year, including measures to limit early voting and vote by mail. This is in a state where 80 percent of votes are cast by mail. Tellingly, Arizona State Representative John Kavanagh told CNN, “There’s a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats value as many people as possible voting, and they’re willing to risk fraud. Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote — but everybody shouldn’t be voting.”
As the battle for voter suppression is being fought on many fronts, so too can the battle for voter protection and expansion. On March 7, the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Biden signed an executive action to promote expanding voting access. The order uses federal resources to provide information to possible voters and help registration efforts. At the state level, bills have been introduced in order to expand voting access. At least 541 bills in at least 37 states have been pre-filed or introduced to expand voting access, 125 of them in New York and New Jersey. These bills focus on similar areas of voting access as the restrictive bills, but with opposite intentions. In regards to mail-in ballots, some bills seek to get rid of mail-in ballots requiring an excuse, opening mail-in voting up to anyone who wants it, while others would now allow the use of drop boxes. Other efforts include expanding early voting (or introducing it for the first time), same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration.
Though all of these efforts to combat voter suppression are significant, the greatest hope is the For the People Act (HR1). Acts of Congress are what can allow the federal government to prevent states from instituting repressive laws, a power that the President does not have himself. This bill, which was also introduced in the last Congress, would be the most comprehensive piece of voting rights legislation since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And it’s about time. Over the years, Republicans have been chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, weakening it. Since the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v Holder, the act has essentially been stripped of most of its power over the states to prevent repressive legislation from being put into law. This new bill will not merely revitalize the weakened Voting Rights Act, but expand it for the new challenges our democracy is facing.
The For the People Act would use the power given to Congress by the Constitution to regulate elections and enforce voting protections under the 14th Amendment. Already passed by the House, this act would provide desperately needed modernization and standardization to our voting system in a way that expands voting rights. It would introduce automatic voter registration across the nation (the US is currently the only major democracy that does not already do so), same-day and online voter registration, and protections against voter roll purges. The act would also restore the right to vote to those with prior convictions who have already served their time, reversing laws set in place during the Jim Crow era and weakening the power of mass incarceration as a tool of disenfranchisement of BIPOC.
Though the act includes much more, it also essentially protects mail-in and early voting while addressing other major issues in campaign finance, foreign election interference, and government ethics. The For the People Act addresses the issues facing the government of our time, issues that must be addressed as quickly and with as much urgency as possible, for the openness and fairness of our democracy is dependent upon it.