Guest Commentary: 21st Century Impasse for Democracy

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By Scott Steward

The following is based on the article “Facing Down Jim Crow, Again” by Ari Berman (Mother Jones July August 2021) and my own research…

I am unabashedly in support of independent journalism that is the answer to “unfree-ad-afflicted-internet” – subscribe to Mother Jones – even if the Mother Jones Magazines pile up. Mr. Berman is a tireless journalist who has been covering voter suppression for years. Support his work.

In the article “Facing Down Jim Crow, Again” you will learn that if we don’t enact federal voter rights legislation (For the People Act) to at least force the court to stop supporting voter suppression, then we will be completely complicit with white supremacists voter suppression. In this article, I combine my experience and research with Mr. Berman’s. His point is that we are precariously close to experiencing another catastrophe for democracy due to the efforts of blatant racism.

The Supreme Court of 120 years ago excused itself from of taking up voter disenfranchisement cases like the one brought by Jackson Giles, president of the Colored Men’s Suffrage Association of Alabama. In 1894, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, often referred to as a standard bearer of enlightened progressive judgement, declined to hear Mr. Giles case. The 1894 Court, while recognizing the evidence of Alabama’s racist disenfranchisement, would not take the case for a lack of federally legislated authority – no voting rights bill – no authority. So much for “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – – unequally able to be denied their right to vote.

Then and now, the court would and will refer to the inaction of the federal government as an excuse to let anti-voting laws stand. Without the passage of the For the People Act the court cannot help those not able to find a voting booth, who fail to receive a mail in ballot or cannot pay or otherwise qualify for identification. The people’s vote will be denied and it will not matter how many years prior a person may have voted and payed taxes in the US where they were born.

The Threat to Voters Now

Today, the stacked Court and 361 Republican anti-voting laws are 362 reasons why we either pass the For the People Act or experience a 21st century version of white supremacist rule. Without the For the People Act there is almost no scenario that keeps a democratically elected majority in the House or Senate, not in 2022, 2024 and not for the foreseeable future (without a revolution). I’ve seen how hard voting is now – if it gets worse – we all lose. The country loses

In the last election, people in most Republican controlled states waited hours in line, could not find a ballot drop box or arrived to vote only to find they had been disqualified by their Secretary of State – yet they found a way to vote. They had local networks of people challenging the disqualifications, providing maps to ballot boxes and offering those in line water and encouragement to stay in line (not advise) to make their voice heard.

Where was their State’s help? It was nowhere to be found. Instead a majority of Republican controlled states were discouraging voting before, during and after the last election. After the election, Arizona’s Republican legislature, ignoring their duty to protect the public trust, let an entirely unqualified organization, Cyber Ninja, audit Maricopa County ballots. It is wasteful and shameful.

Maricopa County. I called Maricopa county for 10 months about 3 days a week as part of my local community’s effort (Indivisibleyolo.org) to get out the vote. I was speaking with, or leaving messages for, registered voters. I was also supporting local organizations, Spanish speakers and affiliated groups – all legal, all small grass roots efforts open to the public. My community is proud to have been part of the work that brought out residents who voted. Maricopa voted for a Democratic state assemblyperson and the County’s first woman reformist District Attorney, elected by the people of Maricopa – voting matters.

I spoke to a lot of people who were discouraged and many of those people were people of color, youth and elderly. They described their determination to vote. They held their ground and dealt with adversity after adversity to vote – not to protest, just to vote. Often, I did not know who they would vote for – only that I could answer questions about where, when and how they could get a ballot and what to do to vote when they got one. It was hard work.

Let me tell you this. Voting was too hard for too many people and the difficulty was on purpose. Many anti-voting laws are already in place. Anti-voting laws have really piled up since 2013 (since the Supreme Court removal of federal review of state voting law changes). Piling on anti-voting laws is not new. What the people, who call themselves Republican representatives, are doing in 2021 is not new. It’s just that a record number of anti-voting laws are in process in 2021.

The message is this. It’s already hard to vote and if the For the People Act does not pass, you ain’t seen nothing yet. I can say, with certainty, our country has been at this impasse before and failed at great cost, hardship and ruined lives. Let me take you back, back to the year 1876 and just a few events leading up to 1893 – This was an era of voter suppression where a much earlier version of the For the People Act failed. What followed? Seventy years of nearly unfettered debasing racist legislation – until 1964 – the second Reconstruction.

130 Years Ago We Failed – Not This Time!

Our tail of caution, my fellow “For the People Act” supporters, begins with the 1876 election of US President Rutherford B Hayes (who made a deal to prematurely remove federal troops from confederate states in exchange for the office of the Presidency). Rutherford ushered in the history of the demise of Reconstruction.

Fourteen years of violence, atrocity and subterfuge later the unified Republicans (then the party of emancipation) wrote and attempted to pass the 1890 version of the For the People Act (the Lodge Act). The Lodge Act was proposed to counter former confederate State laws that prevented the Black vote. Alas the Lodge Act was scuttled with the help of a few western Republican states. With the defeat of the Lodge Act, the then confederate Democrats thought the equal-rights-Republican party had abandoned voting rights indefinitely, and in effect they had.

Just a little less than 20 years past the civil war, reconstruction was declared completely disassembled. Here is a summary statement from the ruling party at the time – 1893 House report “Let every trace of the reconstruction measures be wiped from the statute books. Let the States of this great Union understand that the elections are in their own hands. Responding to a universal sentiment throughout the country for greater purity in elections many of our States have enacted laws to protect the voter and to purify the ballot.”

This 130-year-old language proved to be too much even for modern day Texas Republicans to hold dear publicly. Having joyously passed a raft of anti-voting measures in 2021, with the rationalizing phrase “Preserve the purity of the ballot box,” the phrase was stricken from the 2021 Texas anti-voting bill only after it was shown to be a replica of the white supremacy policy of the 1890s.” (Ari Berman, Mother Jones. Jul-Aug 2021).

We are again at an inflection point, a little over 50 years past the Civil Right Act of 1964, the second Reformation. We all see the many ravages of decades of institutional racism– denied loans, jail for inability to pay bail, and if that was not enough, outright massacres. It is within this legacy of racial disenfranchisement that eight years ago (June 25, 2013) the Supreme Court showed it was ready and able to defend a State’s right to discriminate over and above the US citizens right to vote.

The Supreme Court struck down the federal government’s ability to pre-approve State voting laws or practices. We are facing the 1890’s again. Should the federal government fail to act on behalf of voting rights, we will all lose – if not forever, for longer than we can foresee – a government for the people (unless they are white or otherwise cater to white supremacy.)

1890 was to be the last hope for Reconstruction voting rights. Then the “For the People Act” took the form of the Lodge Act which was a bill introduced by senator Henry Cabot Lodge to re-establish the right of the federal government to empower federal supervisors to oversee registration, voting and ballot counting. As mentioned before, the bill was filibustered and “killed” by a senatorial sleight-of-hand procedural vote orchestrated by a few western states worried about the Lodge Act’s spillover to empower Asian suffrage. The fear of the “yellow peril” convinced enough Republican Senators to join the former confederate states.

“The failure of the Lodge bill is a stark reminder of the cost of inaction. Following its defeat Democrats suppressed the Black vote so efficiently that they gained unified control of the federal government in 1893, for the first time since before the Civil War. They promptly repealed the laws that had been used to enforce Reconstruction and protect black suffrage.” (Ari Berman, Mother Jones. Jul-Aug 2021).

So devastating was the gutting of voting rights and other rights in 1893 that it took 70 years to get close to what a recovery would look like with the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the second Reconstruction.

Today, the Georgia legislature has stripped Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, of his chairmanship and voting rights on the state election board. Georgia’s Republican legislature has given itself the power to appoint a majority of election board members. The election board has been given the power to take over up to four county election boards. Nine Georgia GOP-controlled counties have dissolved bipartisan election boards to create all-Republican panels and right-wing groups now have unlimited capacity to challenge voter eligibility. All that in one state. There are 17 Republican trifecta states among the 34 states all trying to enact even more voter restrictions.

How shrill is the Republican drive to repress the vote? Park Cannon, a Black state representative from Atlanta, demanded to see the signing of the 2021 anti-voting law by Governor Brian Kemp. She was dragged (literally) from the Capital and briefly charged with two felonies (subsequently dropped.) A state representative, prevented from witnessing legislation enacted in her own state. A “public” law about voting signed behind closed doors. Shall this stand?

The sanctity of state’s rights. A miscarriage of sanctity, states’ rights having been forced into our constitution predominantly to placate slave owners. Further, states’ rights were imagined when most of us lived our entire lives 50 miles from where were born. Today the anti-democratic legacy of states’ rights is used to make the argument that we may rob each other so long as we do it within our own state. If a gerrymandered state legislature decides that robbery is in their best interest, it can be called law by a white minority indefinitely. It is as if to say that democracy does not mean democracy, it means whatever you can dream up to stay in power.

For The People Act or Bust

This is why the For the People Act is so important. Without the For the People Act civil rights and voting rights will be criminalized nationally as they were, in full, beginning in 1893. Starting by inflating states’ rights – with an open contempt for equality – a racist minority took over the country by 1893. Will we let it happen again?

Keep in mind that if you add up all the people in the 2019 census that are represented by 2021 Republican Senators (or those that vote with them) they make up 43% of the population. Will we allow fifty Senators who represent 43% of the population dictate who can and who cannot vote? Will we disenfranchise 57% of America for the sake of a filibuster? Will we let the rabid notions white entitlement determine how we govern?

“It’s 2021. The attempt to overturn the election, an insurrection at the US Capital, a record number of bills to restrict voting rights – is an attempt to end the second reconstruction that began in the 1960s.” (Ari Berman, Mother Jones Jul-Aug 2021).

History is clear, fail to pass federal voting rights and democracy will dissolve. The subsequent white minority rule will meet opposition with surveillance and militarization and the implementation of an anti-science denialist response to gender identity, climate change and any other crises that comes along.

Democracy is not a cure-all, but gas lighters like the long-time columnist David Brooks, are to be villainized. Mr. Brooks advises us that the latest (July 1, 2021) 6 to 3 Supreme Court vote to weaken the 1965 Voting rights act is nothing to make a fuss over. Really David? Glad you have the privilege. Let’s look at what our 2021 Court said.

The stacked Court ruled that votes cast in the wrong precinct or delivered by a caregiver/third party can be disqualified. “Inconvenience,” said Justice Alito, “does not mean inequality”. So in 2021, any State can make voting as inconvenient as they want and it’s not disenfranchisement? Alito is wrong, David Brooks is delusional. The Court has cast the gauntlet – “show us the law that makes us rule in favor of voting rights.”. – That would be the For the People Act.

The Senate needs to pass the For the People Act or we will be walking backwards again, starting in 2023 – 130 years after we turned our back on the reasons we fought the Civil War of emancipation. The pain we have inflicted on our own people knows no depths. There is only one peaceful solution and that is passage of the For the People Act.

Call your senator and show up at your local actions in support of the For the People Act – it could be one of the last public actions your allowed if the For the People Act does not pass.

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