By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
“If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.” –Congressman John Lewis
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act HR#1 honors the late Congressman who risked his life championing the right to vote. On March 7th, 1965, John Lewis and other civil rights leaders led a march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate voting rights. This past Sunday is known as “Bloody Sunday” marking fifty-six years since Lewis and other peaceful marchers were attacked and beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan). This anniversary is a reminder of the growing injustices in election laws. As Lewis said, we “have a moral obligation to do something about it.”
On June 25th, 2013, in an outrageous decision, the United States Supreme Court concluded that racism is no longer a political factor in America. Ruling in a partisan 5-to-4 vote in Shelby County v. Holder, they killed a vital provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This ruling started with a false assumption that forty years have erased discriminatory Jim Crow election practices.
The High Court ruled Section 4(b) unconstitutional and no longer needed. This provision spelled out the formula identifying the jurisdictions subjected to preclearances based on their histories of discrimination. This decision nullified Section 5, requiring certain states and local governments with long histories of voter discrimination to obtain federal preclearance before implementing changes to their voting laws or practices.
With many voting rights abuses today, there can be little doubt that the majority of the Court profoundly erred in their assumption that ballot-box racism has ended. The majority is either dangerously cloistered or deliberately bent on undercutting minority voters when they eliminate voter rights with flawed decisions.
Last week, the Court heard arguments in the most important voting rights case in eight years over challenges to a restrictive Arizona election law that adversely impacts Native Americans living on reservations and other minorities. With the addition of three Trumpsters, the Supreme Court has little regard for minority rights and appears poised to uphold election restrictions. A bad decision will make it much harder to challenge any other state’s limits to ballot access and destroy the crucial remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Michael A. Carvin, the RNC attorney, admitted their motive before the Court, “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game, and every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretations of Section 2 hurts us.”
The Poor People’s Campaign warned that there are fewer voting rights today than before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed. Since 2010, twenty-three states have enacted racist-driven voter suppression laws, including gerrymandering, reduced early voting days and fewer hours, purging voter rolls, closing targeted voting locations, and more restrictive voter ID laws making it harder to register. Following Shelby County v. Holder, fourteen states added voting restrictions before the 2016 election. There were 868 fewer polling places disproportionately targeting Black people in at least 17 states.
We are living in dangerous times for democracy as Republicans in bad faith abandon core voter rights that should not be normalized or ignored. We are witnessing a reawakening of Jim Crow politics. Several states have sweeping voter suppression laws that disproportionately prevent minorities, the elderly, and youth from voting. Now, polling places targeted for closure across the country were in predominantly African-American counties. Voter suppression in various forms has also targeted American Indian and Alaskan Native voters.
Racism is alive and well and spreading north and west. Politicians hide their motivations as they falsely claim they are securing elections and stopping election fraud. Laws purported to stop mythical voter fraud make it harder for minorities they consider undesirable to vote. Racism is hard to ignore. Research by Stephen Pettigrew at the University of Pennsylvania found minority voters are six times as likely as whites to wait longer than an hour to vote. In many states, this disparity is intentional. States controlled by Republicans enact unnecessarily strict voter ID laws and force polling place closures to make voting harder, targeting minority communities that tend to vote Democrat. Mr. Pettigrew’s research also suggests that this discourages voters. For each hour would-be voters wait, their probability of voting in the next election drops by one percent.
More troubling, an election backlash propagated by Trump’s big lie and bogus election fraud claims that were thrown out of courts all over the country yet Republican lawmakers promoted Trump’s baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities. Trump’s claims were disputed by the agencies that oversee U.S. elections calling the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.” In a joint statement on November 12th, election officials stated: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
Republican state lawmakers, ignoring these findings, are pushing more voter suppression. As of February 19th, 2021, The Brennan Center report identified 253 bills restricting voting access in 43 states. Swing states are a big target as Arizona has nineteen restrictive bills. Pennsylvania is second with fourteen restrictive voting proposals, followed by Georgia with eleven pending bills.
During the campaign, Trump made it clear he was targeting minority voters with his attack on Philadelphia. During the debate, he claimed without a shred of evidence that that “bad things happen in Philadelphia, Bad things.” Trump aimed at Philadelphia knowing he was behind in Pennsylvania polls. He was lying about poll watchers having problems when there were no voting polling locations open in Philadelphia at the time. During that debate, Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” in a signal made clear on January 6th.
It turned out that Trump did better in Philadelphia in 2020. Trump only won two Philadelphia wards in 2016. In 2020, his vote total grew and he added a third ward. Trump lost several largely white suburban counties in Pennsylvania. Yet, after the election, Trump and many Republicans peddled lies about Pennsylvania election fraud.
The right to vote is foundational to a just democracy. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore justice to an increasingly flawed electoral system by:
- Restoring the full protections of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965. A bipartisan Congress reauthorized the law in 2006. Despite broad support in 2006, the Supreme Court gutted the law in 2013. The bill provides the provisions needed to protect all Americans’ right to vote;
- creating “a new coverage formula that applies to all states and hinges on a finding of repeated voting rights violations in the preceding 25 years as Jim Crow is moving across the country;
- Establishing a process for reviewing voting changes in jurisdictions focused on measures that have historically discriminated;
- Establishing a limited process for reviewing voter ID, the reduction of multilingual voting materials and other actions with the most significant discriminatory impact;
- Allowing federal courts to order states or jurisdictions to address violations where the effect of the voting measure leads to racial discrimination denying citizens their right to vote;
- Increasing transparency by requiring public notice for voting changes;
- Granting the Attorney General the authority to request federal observers be present where there is a severe threat of racial discrimination in voting;
- Revising preliminary injunction standards for voting rights actions where there is a need for immediate preliminary relief;
- Increasing accessibility and protections for Native American and Alaska Native voters being eroded by restrictive state laws.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announced that “not one Republican Senator will vote for HR#1.” Congressman Jim Clyburn is urging the Senate to find a way around the filibuster to allow for the swift passage of the Lewis Act asserting, “There’s no way to let filibusters deny voting rights.”
For those who were privileged to know him, Lewis was a gentle giant. As a member from Georgia for 33 years, Lewis became known as the “Conscience of the Congress” for his unwavering integrity and support for justice. Lewis suffered a fractured skull, yet he never wavered in his commitment to promote equality for all. Dying of pancreatic cancer, he returned to Washington on June 7th to take a public stand on the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza on 16th St. after Trump teargassed peaceful protesters including the pastor of the Saint John’s Church for a photo opportunity holding a bible upside down in front of the church. Standing in front of the White House with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Lewis was clearly struggling but defiant in the face of injustice. He is now gone, but his passion for the rights of every American should inspire us. Fair elections were central to his life’s work and the fight for fairness continues.