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Voting rights, a partisan issue? Yes, Republicans have fallen that far

‘Party of Lincoln’ seems to believe it can only win by placing as many obstacles to voting as possible

Reps. John Lewis, right, and Terri A. Sewell and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy at a news conference before the House passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act on Dec. 6. Only one Republican voted for the bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Reps. John Lewis, right, and Terri A. Sewell and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy at a news conference before the House passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act on Dec. 6. Only one Republican voted for the bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Stacey Abrams has it right, for right now. She lost her 2018 race to be the governor of Georgia to Republican Brian Kemp, who as secretary of state was in charge of the election, a situation that would not pass the sniff test in North Korea.

OK, that comparison is a little far-fetched, but only a little.

Since then, though, she’s been plenty busy, confirming that, yes, she would be open to a vice presidential spot on the 2020 Democratic ticket and locking down a network TV deal for a drama based on one of her novels.

Most importantly, though, through her group Fair Fight, she has been fighting for voting rights, an issue that’s bigger than one election and always has been.

Despite the GOP talking point that the impeachment inquiry is crowding out important work, under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the House has been passing legislation, only to see those bills die in the Senate under the strict command of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Last week, another proposed bill joined the list, with little doubt that it too would meet the same Senate fate. The two parties can’t even agree on what to call it. For Democrats, and officially, it is the Voting Rights Advancement Act. Republicans have dubbed it the “The Federal Control of Elections Act.”

Not too subtle.

The bill would shore up sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 tossed out by the Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling in 2013. When the court removed provisions that forced jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to “pre-clear” any changes in local election laws, voting restrictions, mostly in states controlled by GOP legislatures, sprung up all over the country, disproving the sunny view of Chief Justice John Roberts and the majority that racism, though not dead, was hardly “pervasive” or “flagrant.”

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The more things change

Many of those states where poll taxes and literacy tests once ruled found ever more imaginative ways to restrict the vote that civil rights pioneers such as Georgia Rep. John Lewis bled for, and many others died to win. To point out just one tactic, several states, including those not originally covered by the act, enacted purges of voting rolls, often axing registered citizens who had not voted in several cycles. (As Abrams has pointed out, citizens don’t lose their Second Amendment rights if they decide not to go out shooting every Saturday, nor do they give up their freedom of religion if they skip worship services now and then.)

Add to that limits on acceptable IDs and more, mostly pushed by Republicans in the name of election security — despite the fact that voting fraud has been shown to be nearly nonexistent and the most notorious recent example of election fraud was perpetrated by a GOP operative in North Carolina.

To update the law, the Supreme Court left it up to Congress, where the process has gone about how you’d expect.

Lewis, no longer the young man putting his life on the line on that march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on Bloody Sunday, lent his moral heft to this new version, gaveling in the vote.

It didn’t help.

It passed along mostly party lines, with only one Republican, Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, from a district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, joining his Democratic colleagues. To compare, in 2006, the last time Congress extended the protections in the Voting Rights Act, it passed with votes of 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Last week’s vote was a clear admission that today’s “Party of Lincoln” figures the only way it can win is to put as many obstacles as possible in place to block voters it deems insufficiently on its side, the folks who can’t stand in line for hours or have brief breaks from work or who don’t have a car or driver’s license. That would be minorities, the poor, the infirm and the young, those who most crave the vote as their most tangible exercise of power and voice.

At all costs

The GOP pulls these tricks even when the general electorate disagrees. Take Florida, where voters overwhelmingly approved restoring the franchise to former felons who had served their time and want to be full members of society. The Republican-dominated legislature promptly added an amendment requiring them to first pay off all court fees and fines. It’s back to the courts, as what was won was cruelly snatched away.

House Republicans, including Wisconsin’s Jim Sensenbrenner, who chaired the Judiciary Committee in 2006, are shocked that their “no” votes are considered nefarious and say that is not the case. Many insist the new legislation goes too far, that it interferes with states’ rights to set their own rules. Hint: When your defense is states’ rights, the language and refuge of those who tenaciously and sometimes violently fought landmark federal civil rights laws as overreach, you might want to rethink your messaging.

To prove the necessity of strengthening voting rights in America, the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, chaired by Ohio Democrat Marcia L. Fudge, for months collected evidence across the country, investigating jurisdictions and listening to elections officials and voters.

It found “persistent discrimination in voting law changes such as purging voter registration rolls, cutbacks to early voting, polling place closures and movement, voter ID requirements, implementation of exact match and signature match requirements, lack of language access and assistance, and discriminatory gerrymandering of legislative districts” at all levels. The report also found that “Native Americans are disproportionately targeted and impacted by voter ID laws and polling place closures.”

If it’s exhausting just to observe the fight to protect “one person one vote” in a country where such an essential right has become just another pawn in the push for power, I can hardly imagine the cost of being in the middle of the battle. But those warriors know it’s not just about who wins and who loses.

“The challenge of voter suppression is it not only blocks you from voting,” Abrams told The Washington Post, “it convinces you it’s not worth trying. And typically, it doesn’t just infect one person, it infects community.”

If apathy is the goal for some who call themselves leaders, that’s no way to nourish community, or democracy.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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