For a nation that supposedly believes in democracy, America spends a lot of time trying to kill it.
In the postbellum era, white Democrats — the conservatives of that day — murdered hundreds of African Americans and forcibly seized state governments in order to disenfranchise Black voters. They constructed all sorts of barriers — poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses — that, while not explicitly mentioning race, had the intention and effect of stopping Black people from voting.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act curtailed much of that. Until 2013, that is, when the Supreme Court gutted it, paving the way for a new round of barriers — photo ID laws, voting-roll purges, polling-place closures — which, while not explicitly mentioning race, have had the intention and effect of stopping Black people from voting.
“Will it go round in circles?” singer Billy Preston once asked. Obviously, it will — and has.
So one is alarmed, but not surprised, by a new report from The Brennan Center For Justice, that lawmakers in 43 states are considering some 253 bills to restrict voting rights. It is hardly coincidental that this flurry of activity comes after white Republicans — the conservatives of this day — tried unsuccessfully to throw out votes from urban centers heavily populated by African Americans on the laughable claim that the November election was “rigged.”
Yes, Brennan reports lawmakers are also pondering 704 bills that expand access to voting. But that’s of limited comfort, especially given the fact that, eight years after decimating the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week in a case that could strike down one of its surviving provisions. One regards this with a feeling not unlike that of watching a drive-by shooter make a U-turn at the end of the block.
This is an all-hands-on-deck emergency. So the Democratic Party must get its act together.
Two critical pieces of legislation are now working their way through Congress. The For the People Act would end partisan gerrymandering, curtail dark money, strengthen ethics and conflict of interest laws, automate voter registration and punish those who seek to intimidate voters or spread misinformation. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would repair the Voting Rights Act so that municipalities with histories of voting discrimination would once again be required to seek federal approval before changing their election practices.
The need for both laws would seem self-evident. But Republicans are determined to stop passage using the filibuster, which gives a minority party power to block legislation by erecting endless procedural hurdles.
By voting in a bloc, Democrats could use their 51-50 Senate majority to end the practice. Problem is, they don’t have a bloc, two of their members having declared themselves unwilling to go along. The party could also end the filibuster selectively — i.e., only for this legislation. Or, in place of the modern procedural filibuster, it could force a return to the sort of talking filibuster made famous in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The view from this corner: Pick one, and get this done.
To do otherwise would be to break faith with the party’s base, yes. But it would also break faith with democracy, the quaint notion that everyone gets a vote, every vote counts equally and the majority rules. The ugly truth now reiterated before our eyes, is that this is a principle conservatives simply do not believe in.
And never did.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org