Declaring victory for the second time in a presidential election, Barack Obama in 2012 threw into his long speech an eight-word ad lib that has stuck with me ever since.
Officially, the line was, “I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time.”
To which he impulsively, and correctly, added, “By the way, we have to fix that.”
Those of us who remain a bit wistful at the size of Obama’s promise and the disappointments that came during his administration and since know that the obstacles to voting in this country didn’t get all that much better over the next four years, and have gotten even worse though the four years after that.
A Republican Senate, Republican-controlled states and a Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court have devoted themselves to one cause above all others: Undermine capital-D Democrats and small-d democracy by making it harder to vote.
The biggest bomb in that attack was Chief Justice John Roberts’ evisceration, in the first year of Obama’s second term, of Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the case of Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts wrote for a bare majority of the court that the blatant official racism that led up to the Voting Rights Act was largely swept away by time and social progress. So, he wrote, the real teeth of the law, the part requiring the U.S. Justice Department to approve voting districts and procedures before an election in states with a history of polling place discrimination, was no longer necessary.
One wonders what color the sky is in Roberts’ world. Because we have quickly learned that, on this planet, in this nation, under too many of our governments, such official discrimination and anti-democratic actions are alive and well.
A handful of polling places are open to serve tens of thousands of voters. Republican lawmakers reject and Republican judges block moves by Democratic governors to delay primary elections or shift them to vote-by-mail so that voters don’t have to choose, in the midst of a global pandemic, between their democracy and their lives.
Again, long lines at polling places create a new kind of poll tax (unconstitutional both in spirit and in letter). Only this time, unlike the circumstances Obama was lamenting eight years ago, it’s very much on purpose.
So Thursday, Obama spoke again. This time with more grey hair, more wrinkles and more determination to spend more than eight words on the topic.
At the funeral for Rep. John Lewis, who devoted, who risked, his life “to fix that,” the most recent president worthy of the name spoke for a good half hour, mostly about how to fix it.
It was more pointed, more openly partisan, than most speeches by former presidents or most eulogies delivered by anyone.
“Even as we sit here,” Obama said, “there are those in power are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting — by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”
There is, as Obama noted, a new voting rights act before Congress. Properly, it’s the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Which has passed the House but, despite having 48 co-sponsors (all 45 Democrats, two independents and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski), has been blocked in the Senate.
As is often the case in politics and culture, Utah provides a different narrative.
Despite being just about the reddest state in the history of red or states, Utah is well-practiced in the voter-friendly method of mail-in voting. Basically, it’s the only way we do it around here.
We also have reasonable voter registration and identification practices and, now that candidates can get on primary ballots with petitions rather than only through a state convention, more of an opportunity for mainstream candidates who would never have survived the caucus system to get to November.
I said all that was in spite of our Republican domination. In a way, it might also be because of it, as Republicans so overwhelm in registration numbers that the Utah GOP doesn’t have to fear answering to the real electorate.
In other states, not so much.
Now the person resident in Obama’s old office has suggested delaying the November election. He’s also spreading false stories about how mail balloting is rife with fraud and that other skullduggery is afoot. All to cause us to doubt the process and accept his complaint, should he lose, that he really won.
The good news is that even most Republicans — in Congress and in Utah — see that as a really bad idea.
They know we can have this election. We know that we had presidential elections in the middle of the Civil War and World War II, when it would have been much easier for a commander in chief to claim that an election was too risky or that changing leadership would be a threat to national security.
The way to do that today is to listen to Barack Obama, listen to John Lewis, listen to Utah Republicans, don’t listen to the sitting president, and vote like our nation depends on it
Because it does.
George Pyle, editorial page editor, cast his first ballot — absentee — in 1974 for the Republican candidate for governor of the state where he then lived. Because the Democrat running that year was a loony prohibitionist.