The 2020 national election is four months behind us. In normal times, the outcomes of the presidential election would have been a settled matter with the newly elected President Biden preparing for his State of the Union address knowing he had won the Electoral College and the popular vote by a comfortable margin.
But, of course, these are not normal times. Former President Trump has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Biden-Harris victory and his supporters adopted the rallying cry “Stop the Steal” based on the fallacious notion that Biden was elected because of widespread voter fraud.
Unjustifiably, state legislative bodies, mostly controlled by Republicans, have cynically latched onto the absurd “Stop the Steal” mantra as a justification for introducing legislation they claim will prevent massive voting fraud. In reality, the legislators’ not-so-veiled purpose is to retain political power by suppressing the vote of communities of color―clearly in preparation for the 2022 mid-term elections.
Proliferation of Voting Suppression Legislation
Using discredited voting fraud justification, state legislators have introduced more than four times the number of bills to restrict voting access compared with this time last year. As many as 33 states have introduced or reintroduced 165 voting restriction bills this year― compared with 35 similar voting suppression bills in 15 states in 2020. Thirty eight of the 44 states that have introduced election-related bills propose policies that changes absentee and mail-in voting procedures.
Attempts to Limit Mail-in and Same Day Voting Practices
Nearly half of restrictive bills introduced this year seek to limit mail voting. Legislators are looking to curtail mail voting at every stage ―with proposals to alter who can vote by mail, make it more difficult to acquire mail ballots, and impose barriers to complete and cast mail ballots. For example:
- Limiting who can vote by mail: Since absentee voting was first allowed, many states required the voter to provide an “excuse” for not being able to vote on Election Day. This type of mail-in voting can be seen as a tool of suppression to decide which “excuses” are acceptable. For that reason, states began to eliminate the “excuse” requirement and send voters absentee ballots. More recently, however, nine states have introduced bills that would make the “excuse” requirement more stringent ― or have bills that eliminate “no excuse” mail voting altogether.
- The issue of states routinely sending out absentee ballots to registered voters is a target of seven states that propose to limit election officials’ ability to send absentee ballots to voters unless the voter specifically requests the ballot.
- In addition, four states are considering bills to prevent sending absentee ballot applications to voters without a specific request.
While voter suppression legislation – such as draconian restrictions on mail-in voting, unnecessary voter ID requirements, and curtailing early voting – are of deep concern, redistricting through gerrymandering practices looms as the most consequential struggle in American statehouses.
As many are aware, reapportionment and redistricting occurs every 10 years after the census. The census count determines which states gain or lose Congressional representation, based on population changes. The political party in control of a given state gets to redraw their state’s congressional districts ― which invariably results in creating districts that greatly advantage the party in power. Therefore, gerrymandering can give either party a political dominance that continues for many election cycles. The post 2020 election partisan composition of state legislatures is as follows:
- Democrats control 37 state chambers.
- Republicans control 61 chambers
- One state chamber has a power-sharing arrangement between both parties.
Why Does this Matter?
The issue of race and ethnicity voting patterns have a lot to do with it. It is well documented that the 2020 election saw a much higher than expected turnout in communities of color. This resulted in Black and Asian-American voters in Georgia, and Latino and Navajo voters in Arizona turning those traditionally red states into blue states. There were similar levels of mobilizations in communities of color in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The result was that early voting by all communities of color produced margins of victory in states that could have easily gone to Trump.
The specter of a continuation of voter participation in communities of color into the mid-terms and next presidential election created panic within the Republican Party. In what was clearly a planned strategy, Republican-led states unhesitatingly began to launch voting suppression schemes. The practice of imposing race-based laws to deny Black and Brown people their right to vote dates to the end of the Civil War― and for another 100 years during the post-slavery Jim Crow period.
This renewed voting suppression undertaking should not be viewed in a vacuum. It is a continuation of systemic racism that has never really gone away. Therefore, this new round of voter suppression legislation matters greatly because, as we saw in the last administration, the stakes for communities of color remain high.
Current Mobilization to Combat Voter Suppression
Though voter suppression efforts are alive and well, it is encouraging to know there are many national and local social justice and civil rights organizations that are active and prepared to combat it in court and at the grassroots level. The mobilization against voter suppression is, of course, exemplified by the work that advocates in the state of Georgia have done over the last five years. Without the grassroots and grasstops organizing by Georgia-based groups such as Fair Fight (Stacy Abrams) and The New Georgia Project, Democratic control of the Senate would not have happened. Nationally, organizations such as the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and the Brennen Center for Justice, to name a few, have long and distinguished histories of leading the fight for voting rights.
On the legislative front, the Declaration for American Democracy (DFAD) coalition was formed in 2018 with a primary mission to reform the nation’s electoral processes ― including voter suppression practices and policies. DFAD’s legislative vehicle for attaining comprehensive reforms in politics was, and still is, the For the People Act (HR-1 – S.1). This legislation, which the House of Representatives passed in February, is nearly 800 pages covering voting issues ranging from regulating money in politics to restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals. This legislation is the No. 1 legislative priority for the House and Senate leadership and has full White House support.
Another voting rights bill that is complimentary to the For the People Act is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR-4). As with HR-1, the Voter Rights Advancement Act is critical to ridding the country of racially motivated election rules and procedures. The historical context of HR-4 is that it is an attempt to remedy the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court “gutting” of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. That decision removed the key voter protection provisions of the Voting Rights Act ― paving the way for a flood of voting suppression laws across the country.
With the confirmation of Merrick Garland to be U.S. Attorney General and the nomination of Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke to be associate attorney general and head of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, respectively, it is anticipated that the Justice Department will be receptive to using all of its tools to protect voting rights.
There is also hope from the Biden-Harris administration that it fully grasps the threat to racial justice and civil rights the renewed voting suppression movement poses. It is heartening that President Biden signed a voting rights executive order on the 56th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” Among other things, his order directs federal agencies to submit to the White House plans outlining ways they can boost voter registration and participation. Significantly, Biden’s executive order requires federal agencies to assist states with voter registration efforts supported by the National Voter Registration Act Of 1993 .
That said, it would be a critical error if the social work community fails to recognize that the surge of voting suppression legislation in many states is a part of an unbroken pattern― dating back to 1870 ― of preventing Black and Brown people unfettered access to the ballot. We must continue to join others, especially at the state and local levels, to protect this basic civil right.