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Analysis

The Great Vote Suppression Campaign of 2021

Biden needs to use his bully pulpit to get federal voting rights legislation passed before it’s too late.

July 27, 2021
voting
Samuel Corum/Stringer

In Amer­ica, of all places, your right to vote should­n’t depend on where you live. But states where it’s been histor­ic­ally diffi­cult to exer­cise this funda­mental demo­cratic right, like Texas, are trying to make it even harder to vote based on the Big Lie of a stolen elec­tion. The need for federal inter­ven­tion to protect voting rights and guard against partisan gerry­man­der­ing gets clearer by the day.

Under the Consti­tu­tion, Congress has the right to set new voting rules that states must comply with, just as it did in the 1960s when it forced South­ern states to aban­don racist voting prac­tices enacted after the Civil War.

After sign­ing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pres­id­ent Lyndon B. John­son said, “The vote is the most power­ful instru­ment ever devised by man for break­ing down injustice and destroy­ing the terrible walls which imprison men because they are differ­ent from other men.” More than five decades later, that instru­ment needs federal protec­tion again.

Between Janu­ary 1 and July 14, accord­ing to new Bren­nan Center research, more than 400 bills that included provi­sions that restrict voting access have been intro­duced in 49 states. During that same time, 18 states have enacted 30 laws that make it harder for people to vote. The laws make mail voting and early voting more diffi­cult. They impose harsh voter ID require­ments. They make purging eligible voters from the rolls more likely. I could go on.

These laws 一 disin­genu­ously marketed as “elec­tion integ­rity” 一 were passed and signed into law by nearly 20 governors despite abso­lutely no evid­ence of wide­spread fraud. 

Worse, the great suppres­sion campaign of 2021 isn’t over yet. Regu­lar legis­lat­ive sessions continue in eight states, and Texas is in the middle of a special session. The Lone­star State seems destined to impose harsh new voter restric­tions in a state infam­ous for its already draconian voting rules and regu­la­tions. Though Demo­cratic state repres­ent­at­ives fled the state to stop the passage of voting restric­tions, includ­ing two big and bad bills, Gov. Greg Abbot has prom­ised to call special session after special session until the lawmakers return.

The story of states that have expan­ded voting rights is worth telling, too. As of July 14, 25 states have enacted 54 laws that make it easier to vote. Some provi­sions expand early and mail voting. Others make it easier to register to vote. Three states have restored voting rights to people with past convic­tions. 

Soon, members of Congress will have two pieces of legis­la­tion before them that would signi­fic­antly blunt the impact of this new era of restrict­ive voting laws. The For the People Act, which already passed the House, would create a national stand­ard for voting access in federal elec­tions. No-excuse vote by mail. Two weeks of early voting. A ban on gerry­man­der­ing. A much-needed over­haul of campaign finance laws. Auto­matic and same-day voter regis­tra­tion and more. The soon-to-be intro­duced John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act would update the Voting Rights Act, once again making juris­dic­tions with a history of voting discrim­in­a­tion receive clear­ance from the Justice Depart­ment and the courts before they can pass new voting rules. 

It’s time for Pres­id­ent Biden to meet this moment with the urgency it deserves. He needs to be this gener­a­tion’s LBJ, using his bully pulpit to get this vital civil rights legis­la­tion passed before it’s too late.