Things are not looking good for voting rights.
Reliably useless Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema last week reasserted their unwillingness to change the filibuster rule to oppose voter suppression. A political Rube Goldberg chain reaction followed, with Chuck Schumer then delaying the promised vote to alter the filibuster—impossible without Manchin and Sinema’s support—and thereby missing his own self-imposed, highly symbolic, always-a-long-shot deadline of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Barring some kind of heavenly intervention, when the Senate reconvenes this week to vote on the combined John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement and Freedom to Vote Act, not a single Republican will sign on.
And for the imminent death of America’s flawed and fragile democracy before it even arrives at its 60th birthday, blame should be assigned to multiple killers and bystanders—including the feckless Democrats, the Supreme Court and its chief partisan, and the power-hungry white grievance-mongers of the GOP.
Sure, Dems are fighting an opponent with no regard for either human decency or the rules, but that was well established forever ago and they should’ve been prepared. Donald Trump’s Big Lie—the one about votes in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit being fraudulent because they were cast by Black people—has been in full swing for well over a year now. Republican lawmakers around the country ramped up their racist voter suppression efforts, already underway but apparently more effective after fine-tuning, the moment the most recent presidential election and Georgia Senate runoffs concluded.
Candidate Biden claimed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would be “one of the first things I do as president,” but then refused on multiple occasions to meet with activists who pleaded with the White House to prioritize voting rights. Last year, the president ignored the Texas Democrats who decamped to D.C. in protest of Republican voter suppression efforts back home, leading one lawmaker to admit he was “pissed off” about the neglect. Back in July, 150 organizations—including the NAACP, Center for Popular Democracy, and the AFL-CIO—sent an open letter pleading with the president to ditch outdated fantasies of bipartisan comity on voting rights, and yet Biden repeatedly refused to publicly promote filibuster reform until roughly a week ago.
During his election victory speech, Biden promised Black voters, who he noted “always had my back,” that he would always have theirs. But since taking office, neither the president, Vice President Kamala Harris, nor congressional Democrats have shown the level of urgency that should meet Republicans’ white supremacist assault on Black citizenship through the erosion of voting rights, and the destruction of democracy it is leading toward.
The Republicans, presenting a united front, are being helped by Manchin and Sinema, who clearly—to echo both Rep. Maxine Waters last Sunday and Kanye circa 2005 (RIP)—don’t care about Black voters. Manchin’s kink seems to be getting Democrats to make all kinds of concessions to bills and then revealing he had no intention of supporting them anyway before presumably going home to count his sweet, sweet fossil fuel money. Then there’s Sinema, who was a co-sponsor of the original John Lewis Voting Rights Act; last year, after the civil rights leader’s death, she tweeted that he was her “hero.” Either of those things would probably lead you to assume that Sinema would enthusiastically support a carve-out to the filibuster for voting rights—Sen. Lewis was literally beaten bloody over them—but you would be wrong. Sinema, who voted last month for a filibuster exception on the debt ceiling, gave a whole quivery-voiced speech last week on how she refuses to quit a tool most handily used by segregationists and anti-miscegenationists. (Apparently, she met with civil rights leaders the day before pulling that little oratory stunt, just to waste some more of Black folks’ time, I guess.)
I don’t know if Sinema is doing this for attention—because she’s daft enough to think she’s the next president or because she, like Manchin, just loves Republican donors—and I don’t care. The end result is the same. These two are helping white nationalists avoid their most dreaded fear: a biracial democracy.
All that said, it speaks volumes that those of us who care about voting rights are focusing our ire on the failing Democrats because Republicans are so openly committed to destroying democracy that the bar for them is buried somewhere deep in the Mariana Trench. Since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, a perpetually aggrieved white conservative contingent has been fighting to take those rights back.
Over the last decade, Republicans at the state level have closed roughly 1,200 polling sites in the South, and purged millions of names from voter rolls. After Biden’s win and record turnout from Black voters in Georgia, Republicans got busy making it harder to vote there and in 18 other states, and they are now doing all kinds of underhanded stuff so that they can legally throw out votes they don’t want in order to overturn election results they oppose. Most of the time, they pretend that this is about election integrity, but sometimes they don’t bother with that whole charade and instead admit that if Black people—and young people, progressives, nonwhites, etc.—vote, that they’ll lose power.
“If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” Lindsey Graham said quite candidly last year. And Donald Trump complained that Democratic efforts to make voting easier would produce “levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
One Republican who wasn’t elected but who’s doing his damnedest to keep his party from suffering at the hands of American voters is Chief Justice John Roberts, who has seemingly been on a mission to keep Black folks from voting since he went to work in the administration of Ronald Reagan—who, sidenote, once called the Voting Rights Act “humiliating to the South.” Roberts has consistently sided against mass enfranchisement, but his most effective handiwork came in 2013, when SCOTUS voted to defang the Voting Rights Act by killing the “preclearance” clause for states that historically participated in racist voter suppression. Roberts authored the majority opinion, which is basically a long-winded treatise on how racism is over, it died in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed, and since racism is dead, why do we need a Voting Rights Act anymore?
In declaring racism dead, Roberts’ ruling set the stage to kill America’s brief experiment with a real democracy. You don’t really need law school to see the flaw in his logic, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drove home in the dissent when she wrote that “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.”
That’s what the Roberts court did, and while it’s been a huge help to the GOP in its effort to reinstate Jim Crow voting prohibitions, most Democrats still approve of Roberts, which brings the uselessness of this whole dumb system full circle with so many different entities contributing, actively or passively, to the end of voting rights.
This country has never been big on democracy, not in practice anyway. The word appears a lot in our political documents and speeches—along with placeholders like “freedom” and “equality”—but for nearly all of its history, the U.S. has been staunchly anti-democratic, withholding voting rights from the non-white, the non-male, and the non-landed.
In many ways, the assault on voting rights now is much more in keeping with who we’ve always been as a country than the timeline blip when we were nearly a democratic nation.