Bertha Lewis (47169)
Bertha Lewis Credit: Contributed

While many Democratic supporters were lulled into complacency by the victory of the Biden/Harris ticket last November––and the twin victories of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff in Georgia this past January––Republicans reacted to those events by undertaking what amounts to a nationwide effort to suppress minority voters in all future elections.

Legislators in 48 states introduced a staggering 389 bills that contain voting restrictive provisions during the first five months of 2021, according to an ongoing study by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Although many people have heard and/or read about the voter suppression law that was passed last March in Georgia, far fewer are aware that similar legislation––and, in many cases, much more restrictive legislation––is currently being pushed in almost every state throughout the country (only two states––Delaware and Vermont––have not had any such legislation introduced during this year’s legislative sessions).

Prior to the start of this month, 14 states had enacted 22 new laws that will make it harder for residents in those states––particularly minority residents––to vote in future elections: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.

In addition, 61 other voter suppression laws had been introduced––and were pending in the legislative approval process––in 18 states: Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.

In general, these pending legislative proposals would greatly expand the powers of state legislatures with regard to voting-related issues; reduce the number of people who are eligible to vote; and make it harder for eligible voters to do so. Specific initiatives in these proposed laws include the following:

• Allowing state legislatures to override the actions and decisions of local election boards and/or state-level officials who are currently in charge of voting;

• Eliminating same-day registration;

• Purging voter registration rolls;

• Reducing or eliminating early voting;

• Reducing or limiting absentee voting;

• Reducing the number of locations where absentee ballots can be dropped off;

• Reducing or eliminating provisional ballots;

• Reducing voting hours on Election Day; and

• Requiring picture IDs for all voters.

In essence, what Republicans are trying to do at the state-level is to put into law what former President Trump and his supporters attempted to do with the myriad of challenges and lawsuits they filed after the 2020 elections. Even now, there are still baseless audits being undertaken––and others proposed––in a last-ditch effort to overturn election results that have been certified and verified multiple times.

This Is Not the Time for Half-Hearted Measures

While I applaud the work that is being done at the state level by those who are opposing these various attempts to suppress minority voters, I think trying to simultaneously fight this battle in 50 different locations is a fool’s mission. Especially when you consider the fact that Republicans currently control both chambers of the legislature in 30 states––and that in 23 of those states, the governor is also a Republican.

That is why we need to pressure the Biden/Harris administration and every Democrat in Congress to pass the For the People Act––and to reintroduce and pass the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The “For the People Act”

This legislation would set a national floor with respect to voting rights––and require all states to follow the same set of basic rules with regard to federal elections. Those basic rules would include the following:

• All voters would be able to register, designate party affiliations, change addresses, and de-register online;

• Citizens would be automatically registered to vote whenever they visited a state or federal agency unless they explicitly opted not to do so;

• Early voting would be available in all states for 15 days, for 10 hours per day, at easily-accessed polling places;

• Voting by mail would be available in all states – and states would have to prepay postage and electronically track all such ballots to ensure that voters knew when their ballots had arrived and where they were in the return process;

• Colleges and universities would be designated as voter-registration agencies – and would be required to help students vote via absentee ballots; and

• Returning Citizens would have their voting rights fully restored upon the completion of their sentence.

The “John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act”

This proposed law––which passed the House in December 2019 but which was never taken up by the Senate––would help to undo the damage that was done by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 when it gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Prior to the 5-4 vote in Shelby County v. Holder, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required those states that had a history of racial discrimination in voting (i.e., Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia––and certain political subdivisions in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and North Carolina)––to get “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding any proposed change in their voting laws.

Within 24 hours of the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, Texas announced that it would be implementing a strict photo-ID voting law. And in the ensuing eight years, many other states have implemented laws that have restricted and suppressed voting rights––especially with respect to minority residents.

We Need Democrats to Act Boldly and to Act NOW

I don’t care what it takes to get the For the People Act––and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act––signed into law this year. That includes setting aside the arcane and insipid filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate.

I call on every Democrat in the Senate––and the entire Biden administration––to do whatever is necessary to pass and enact the For the People Act before Congress breaks for its summer recess in August.

And I also call on all the Democrats in Congress to do whatever is necessary to reintroduce––and to enact––the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act before the end of this year’s Congressional session.

Finally, I call on every voter in America who believes in democracy and justice to never again vote for any elected official who does not publicly espouse their 100% support for the passage of the For the People Act and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Enough is enough.

The house of American democracy is on fire––and we need to extinguish that fire before it burns everything to the ground.

The time to act is NOW!

Bertha Lewis is president and founder of the Black Leadership Action Coalition.