Act now to protect voting rights and preserve the nation

reative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license This is the artwork of American artist, Ted Ellis.

​“Kathy spotted the long line of voters as she pulled into the Christian City Welcome Center about 3:30 p.m., ready to cast her ballot in the June 9 primary election.

“Hundreds of people were waiting in the heat and rain outside the lush, tree-lined complex in Union City, an Atlanta suburb with 22,400 residents, nearly 88% of them Black.

She briefly considered not casting a ballot at all, but decided to stay. “By the time she got inside more than five hours later, the polls had officially closed and the electronic scanners were shut down. Poll workers told her she’d have to cast a provisional ballot, but they promised that her vote would be counted. …“By the time the last voter finally got inside the welcome center to cast a ballot, it was the next day, June 10.”

Kathy’s story, reported by NPR in June 2020, shows the future of voting in the United States unless Congress acts now. Closure of polling places in Black neighborhoods and removal of voting machines to create long lines are just two of the tactics targeting Black voters, Indigenous voters, poor voters, and Democratic voters. Those tactics disenfranchise voters. In June 2020, “the average wait time after 7 p.m. across Georgia was 51 minutes in polling places that were 90% or more nonwhite, but only six minutes in polling places that were 90% white.” 

We as a nation desperately need the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives on January 13, and is held hostage today by the Senate filibuster threat. 

In my lifetime, people have fought and died for the right to vote. The voting rights movement of 1964’s Freedom Summer opened with the June 21 assassination of three young voting rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. They were not the first or the last voting rights workers to be killed. 

The movement continued into 1965, when the March 7 Bloody Sunday attack by law enforcement officers on peaceful marchers stirred the conscience of the nation. John Lewis, brutally bloodied that day, went on to become one of the longest-serving members of Congress and a staunch, lifelong defender of voting rights. That is his name on the Freedom to Vote Act now held hostage in the Senate. 

The bloody battle for voting rights in the 1960s brought passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after a Senate filibuster was defeated. Vox notes

“The law had a huge impact on many Southern states. For example, black voter registration rates in Mississippi increased from a mere 6.7 percent in 1965 to 59.8 percent in 1967, according to the US Commission for Civil Rights.”

The Voting Rights Act worked. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, saying that it was no longer needed. State legislatures immediately began to pass new restrictions on voting. The anti-voting movement accelerated with racist and right-wing attacks on U.S. election integrity over the past four years. 

Kathy’s story took place in Georgia, but attacks on voting proliferated across the country: In Milwaukee, the most diverse city in Wisconsin, 180 polling places were cut to just five, decreasing access and increasing wait times. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that, across the country, “Latino voters waited on average 46 percent longer than white voters, and Black voters waited on average 45 percent longer than white voters.”

Voting restrictions include shortening times for registration and for early in-person voting, severely restricting mail-in voting, and requiring voter IDs from a limited list of sources. The excuse given for all of these restrictions is prevention of voting fraud—despite complete lack of evidence for widespread voting fraud.

Even the right-wing Heritage Foundation could document only 1,200 case of voter fraud in twenty years—less than 60 cases per year. Across the country, one Republican-controlled investigation after another has come up with the same conclusion: no fraud in the 2020 election.

Voting restrictions and phony fraud claims are the more public face of attacks on our electoral system. Other attacks target election officials and the electoral process. The New York Times reported: 

​“Lonnie Hollis has been a member of the Troup County election board in West Georgia since 2013. A Democrat and one of two Black women on the board, she has advocated Sunday voting, helped voters on Election Days and pushed for a new precinct location at a Black church in a nearby town.

“But this year, Ms. Hollis will be removed from the board, the result of a local election law signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican. Previously, election board members were selected by both political parties, county commissioners and the three biggest municipalities in Troup County. Now, the G.O.P.-controlled county commission has the sole authority to restructure the board and appoint all the new members.

“’I speak out and I know the laws,’ Ms. Hollis said in an interview. ‘The bottom line is they don’t like people that have some type of intelligence and know what they’re doing, because they know they can’t influence them.’…
“Republicans have introduced at least 216 bills in 41 states to give legislatures more power over elections officials, according to the States United Democracy Center, a new bipartisan organization that aims to protect democratic norms. Of those, 24 have been enacted into law across 14 states….

A separate new Arkansas law allows a state board to “take over and conduct elections” in a county if a committee of the legislature determines that there are questions about the ‘appearance of an equal, free and impartial election.’”

Besides the public, legislated attacks on voting, threats of violence target electoral officials. Reuters compiled some of the hundreds of graphic threats. A sampling includes these: 

“Watch your back, I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP, I SEE YOU SLEEPING. BE AFRAID, BE VERRY AFRAID. I hope you die.”
“I want to thank you for such a great job you all did on stealing this election, I hope you all go to jail for treason, I hope your children get molested. You all going to F—ing die.
“She’ll be suicided with 2 bullets to the back of the head.”
“WE ARE COMING FOR YOU!!!! WE WILL NOT GO AWAY NOR WILL WE EVER F—ING STOP YOU K—E!… WE ARE NOW WATCHING YOUR CHILDREN AND LOVED ONES. SEE YOU SOON.”
“Your daughter is beautiful … I’d be a shame if something happened to her.”

A survey for the Brennan Center for Justice in 2021 found that one in six local election officials had been threatened and that one in three felt unsafe because of their positions as election officials.

We cannot allow these attacks to stand. The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act will protect elections, voters, and electoral processes and officials. The Senate must end the filibuster—either for this specific act protecting voting rights, or in its entirety—and must act now. The future of the nation is at stake.