On Voting Rights, Worrying Won’t Help You

Aging has taught me loss and new anxieties, an endless worry over the fragility of life. COVID-19 taught me all fears can be heightened or sidestepped by the unexpected, that the fragility of life extends much further than old age and disease. The politicization of the coronavirus, the 2020 election, the January 6 insurrection, and the ensuing attempts at disenfranchisement taught me anxiety is futile.

Looking at any system, political or otherwise, born out of legacies, amendments and separate moving parts requires sacrifice. One has to choose where the story begins and then accept the story could always go back further. This is a piece about the fragility of voting rights in 2021, but the musculature defining the American right’s tools and methods for voter suppression was established well over a century ago. It’s a history of literacy tests, poll taxes and explicit voter intimidation. Then there’s the adjacent history of progressive legislation, of too little, too late, of some but not enough. We should stop congratulating ourselves on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and acknowledge it’s been much too long for follow up legislation. The VRA’s victories and achievements have been steadily erased by a blind Supreme Court and a salivating Republican Party, feeding itself on “The Big Lie,” and “election security.”

The VRA’s successor, the For the People Act, has been languishing in the Senate for months and it needs to pass now more than ever.

I’ve accepted many aspects of the American political infrastructure as quirks or oddities, things that will eventually level out, from wisdom or demands from the electorate. These “oddities,” or undemocratic features, of our democracy are the same ones accelerating the Republican Party’s erasure of voting rights in 2021.

The US Senate has a major skew toward rural voters. Despite Democrats representing millions more constituents, the Senate skews toward white voters, a demographic largely constituting rural areas and states. Moreover, the Electoral provided Republicans a 3.9 point bias in the 2020 election. These same rural states, often governed by White Republicans, are now doubling down on voting identification laws, among others, laws disproportionately affecting Black Americans and other minorities.

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not and was not intended to address many of the built-in electoral hurdles of the American democratic system, it was nonetheless designed to limit and prohibit discriminatory, racist voting practices, which should bring us up to date. Mostly. Kind of. Not really. For close to a decade, we’ve been living with a hollow replacement of the original legislation.

In 2013, The Supreme Court announced its dereliction of duty regarding the Voting Rights Act in Shelby Counter v. Holder, declaring preclearance an anachronistic relic, unconstitutional in its application. Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court doubled down on its abdication of responsibility. The Court’s decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee established a precedent in line with current Republican politics. “Those sounds of us gaslighting and dog whistling? That’s not us. This is about what we say and not what we do.” Or, as the Court decided, voting restrictions and discriminatory practices can only be labeled as such if those words are said aloud, regardless of the consequences.

If the Supreme Court has abdicated its responsibilities and gerrymandering gives states relative carte blanche to act as they wish, regardless of the wants of their constituents, our senators need to do what they were elected to do. If not, we can expect more and more oppressive voting legislation to pass.

The Brennan Center for Justice reports, “As of June 21, 17 states enacted 28 new laws that restrict the access to vote.”

For my home state of Texas, here are the consequences. Texas’s current House and Senate bills would:

  • “Prohibit election officials from proactively sending out absentee ballot applications to voters who had not requested them.”
  • “Add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail.”
  • “Limit what assistance could be provided to voters and expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.”

I am, of course, anxious over the river of prohibitive voting legislation. I am, of course, anxious over Biden’s pipe-dreams of bipartisanship and Joe Manchin’s use of the term as an aphrodisiac. I am, of course, worried about the continued presence of Q-Anon and other conspiracy theories. It would be naive to think of those toxic cultural touchstones as vestigial limbs that will hang and swing wildly until the host rejects them. They’re here and more and more of the Republican electorate cling to them. More than any of that, however, I’m worried our late acknowledgement of built-in inequities into our system has knee-capped us. For those that profit from tilt and Republican gerrymandering, it’s the same as usual. For the rest of us, it’s time to acknowledge our systems are undemocratic and make a change.

Until the last few years, I had assumed these draconian and antiquated measures to restrict the right to vote and vote freely in the United States would prove temporary, that one midterm or the other would change the tide. While I had been aware of the Republican Party’s xenophobic and discriminatory rhetoric at the primary and state levels, I naively thought these same representatives would do what was right with a national spotlight. When push came to shove, regardless of the engine behind them, they’d do what was right to protect American democracy. This last year, more than any other, has exposed the hollow heart of our governance. Anyone, with the right apparatus, can dump whatever poison they want without consequence.

If the courts refuse to help, if our state legislators can’t help, then it’s up to Congress to do its job and legislate. There is too much on the line to do nothing and too much history warning of the consequences of inaction. The Senate needs to pass the For the People Act now. Worrying won’t save us.



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