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Transcript: The Ever-Increasing Restriction of Voter Access

Today I’d like to address what has been, up to this point, a slow erosion of our voting rights. Since the election last November and the subsequent baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud, the slow erosion has turned into a landslide. In statehouses across this nation, there are - according to the Brennan Center for Justice - some 253 bills across 43 states with provisions that further restrict voting access. These bills have been introduced, pre-filed or carried. This information was tallied on February 19, so the numbers today may actually be higher.


On balance, there are 704 bills across a different set of 43 states with provisions that expand voting rights. The Brennan Center for Justice notes that some bills have provisions that both expand and restrict voting rights, so some of them get counted twice in this tally.


Now I said “on balance,” but I don’t want this tally of bills to look like it’s a zero sum game. My personal belief is that in a democracy, there should be no attempts whatsoever to restrict a person’s access to voting.


And, I don’t want to get too academic here, but when I use the phrase “access to voting,” I recognize that at our nation’s founding, there was never a conscious intent to provide every citizen a right to vote. The constitution relegated the logistics of voting to the states, where each state created its own set of laws. That concept pretty much holds true today, but with a few changes that have taken place since the constitutional convention in 1787.


In the era of reconstruction, the federal government recognized the need to establish and enforce certain parameters within which the states were to operate their voting machinery. It was codified in the 15th Amendment in 1870; section 1 reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”


The 19th Amendment in 1920 further expanded voting rights to women.


But these amendments alone didn’t solve the problem. Far from it. The constitution is but a piece of paper, whereas the action it inspires takes place on the street. In the years subsequent to the passage of the 15th Amendment, some states fought back by embarking on a process of restricting voting rights by implementing such things as poll taxes, or literacy tests or strict checks on identification. These were generally known as Jim Crow laws. Their intent was to restrict votes from minority Americans, particularly Black Americans.


The 1960s civil rights era ushered in the voting rights act, which - after nearly 100 years - finally put some teeth into the 15th Amendment. It essentially gave the federal government the right to oversee and approve changes to certain states’ voting laws. These particular states were referred to as “covered states,” and most of them were in the south. The provision of the voting rights act that compelled federal oversight was called the “coverage provision,” and its implementation was referred to as the “preclearance remedy.” That all sounds very technical, but suffice it to say that the overall intent was to ensure the demise of Jim Crow.


And to a large degree, it succeeded. It didn’t eliminate Jim Crow altogether, but it did provide protections for our fellow minority Americans in the covered states as they cast their votes.


But it could be argued that the voting rights act fell victim to its own success. In the case of Shelby County v Holder in 2013, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 in favor of striking down the coverage provision of the voting rights act. In a metaphorical sense, it took the teeth out of the voting rights act.


Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a majority opinion on this decision. He stated that the problem the act was to resolve appears to not be a problem anymore. More specifically, in his words:


Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been banned nationwide for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in the covered States have risen dramatically in the years since. Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.

In my own opinion, that last sentence - that there is no longer a disparity - was either indiscriminately naive or willfully blind. It completely ignored the hidden sentiment playing out on the streets among the white lawmakers who were waiting in the wings to revive the corpse of Jim Crow. Indeed, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg observed at the time, “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”


The result of the 2013 Supreme Court decision was felt almost immediately. Within months, state legislatures began passing new voting laws that purged voters from the voting rolls, restricted early voting, instituted voter ID laws and many other laws designed to restrict voter rights. The process continues to this day, and has been accelerated in the wake of the 2020 elections. In fact, the bogus claim of widespread election fraud in the 2020 election is being used as a faux cudgel to knock down voter’s rights.


The state of Georgia, which went blue for both the presidential and senate elections in the past cycle, is ground zero in this shameful pursuit. Its state legislators looked carefully at the demographics of the past election and crafted bills that support the reanimation of Jim Crow. They noticed that a majority of voters 65 and older are white, so they can continue their unrestricted access to voting by mail. Everyone else must show up at the polls. Statistically, voting in person and on election day for our fellow Black Americans has been difficult. So, according to statistics from the Brennan Center for Justice, over 35 percent of Black voters vote on Sunday, as opposed to slightly less than 27 percent who vote on a different day, including election day. So guess what Georgia House Bill 531 proposes? It eliminates early in-person voting on Sundays in the weeks leading up to an election.


Pennsylvania is another example of voter suppression in action. Within days after the 2020 presidential election, then-President Trump launched his “stop the steal” campaign by specifically targeting Philadelphia, which, coincidentally, is home to roughly 65 percent of the eligible Black voters in all of Pennsylvania.


A bill, being introduced by state senator Patrick Stefano - whose constituent territory includes none of the major metropolitan areas where over 80 percent of the eligible Black voters reside - is defended in the senator’s own words as, “guaranteeing that eligible voters must apply for a mail-in ballot for each election, and that only the Department of State may distribute the applications to apply for mail-in ballots.” Basically, he advocates for the restriction of mail-in ballots. This cuts off opportunities for many people who live in metropolitan areas who are faced with long lines at the polls along with the inability to take time off work to vote.


Now I don’t want to ignore the fact that there are a large number of bills that seek to expand voting rights. This is a good development, but as I said, in a true democracy where every qualified citizen has unfettered access to voting, bills that expand voting rights, along with bills that restrict them, would not be necessary at all. It wouldn’t even be an issue. But, here we are.


Regarding the bills that seek to expand voting access and voting rights:


A number of states make permanent the recent expansion of vote-by-mail policies adopted in the wake of Covid. Twelve states - so far - introduced bills that would allow a process known as “curing” of ballots, which provides individual voters the opportunity to fix a mistake on their ballot. And bills in eight states would require local officials to provide ballot drop boxes.


Thirteen states have introduced bills that expand early voting. A different set of thirteen states have bills that seek to allow same-day registration.


There are already 19 states along with the District of Columbia that implement automatic voter registration. Eleven more states this year are introducing bills that would likewise implement automatic voter registration. And - talk about progressive ideas from red states - legislators in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas have introduced bills that would allow voters to register to vote online.


And 15 states have introduced proposals that would restore or ease current restrictions on people with past convictions. Leading the charge in this effort - so far - is Mississippi, believe it or not. A total of 12 such bills are currently under consideration in that state.


Finally, you may recall that our very first podcast on Democracy on the Move featured Vermont State Senator Christopher Pearson, who is also a board member of an organization called National Popular Vote. Eleven states have introduced proposals to sign on to an agreement - or a “compact” - being promoted by National Popular Vote.


What is National Popular Vote? It is an organization dedicated to the promotion of something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact -- an agreement among states to send all their presidential electors corresponding to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. Essentially, it holds states to an agreement that is designed to get around the arcane rules of the electoral college by guaranteeing that the winner of the national popular vote is sent to the White House. The compact has a trigger point; that is, it doesn’t go into effect until enough states sign on to guarantee 270 electoral votes. So far, enough states have signed on to constitute 196 electoral votes. I punched the numbers into my calculator and figured out that only 74 more electoral votes remain before the compact gets activated. It would be nice to see this happen before 2024. It would eliminate the phenomenon whereas a president can get elected even though he or she fails to win the popular vote.


I’ll leave you now with this final thought. Actually, it’s a call to action. Knowing now what you know about state legislators actively trying to suppress the vote, please, please, please search your own conscience, and if this bothers you, contact your state legislators and let them know what’s on your mind. Be respectful. It’s easier to attract bees with honey instead of vinegar.


I know from personal experience that this works. I’ve reached out to both my state representative and my state senator on several occasions and I did get a personal response. Really. It wasn’t a form letter, it was an actual personal response.


I can tell you it was personal because last year when I reached out to my state senator and asked for some help in possibly reducing petition requirements during the age of Covid, I received a . . . um . . . very personal response.


I’ll read you his response, and you can judge for yourself as to whether it was personal.


Mr. Schaefer,
In light of all of the other pressing issues we are currently faced with; and the importance of passing a budget, I would not be interested in spending any of the the limited amount of time we have working to pass 'special" laws for your organization.
You are correct when you state "all people have an equal voice", and the fact that your organization is attempting to use this national crisis as an excuse to pass 'special" legislation that is self serving to your cause is sickening to me.
Respectfully
Senator Paul Wieland

Okay. Well . . . I’m not sure about the “respectfully” part. I didn’t take it personally. The guy was probably busy and maybe having a bad day. So be it. If that were indeed the case, he probably should have allowed someone on his staff to send me a benign email on his behalf. At the very least, the email would have been grammar-checked, which would have eliminated the double article - “the the” - and saved some embarrassment. But I suppose that since we both live in Missouri, he decided to “show me” some insight to his current state of mind. It got the message loud and clear.


By the way, note to self: Never send an email when you’re not feeling 100 percent emotionally calm. You can write the email, but don’t hit the “send” button until you’ve had a chance to calm down and review it.


I will say that I’ve reached out to my state representative as well, Mary Elisabeth Coleman on a number of occasions. I can say that even though I disagree with her position on just about every major issue, she is a kind, sincere and respectful person. In fact, I actually voted for her last year. Of course, she ran unopposed, she was the only one on the ballot for that position, so my vote didn’t do much one way or the other. But she does have my respect, so hey, why not show a bit of support?


Anyway, my point is that I’ve been able to contact my local state legislators and make my concerns known. I encourage you to do the same. Yes, they do actually respond. And they may not enthusiastically throw support behind your request, but at least they know there’s a rising constituency out there that might just deny them their job if they go too far.


Generally, you can contact them through the contact page on their website or directly through email. And you can always go old school and call their office on the phone; if your timing is right, you might actually get to talk with them.


And if you have any success in this endeavor, please let me know. I’d like to share your story on this podcast.


Meanwhile, you can find a list of the voter suppression bills being proposed in your state legislature by going to the Brennan Center for Justice website at brennancenter.org. If you find that information useful, consider donating a few dollars to help them keep the lights on.


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