By Martin Woodley
The racist character of the current Republican Party strategy for pushing back at the result of the Presidential election last year, and the senatorial run-offs in Georgia earlier this year could not be clearer. It was summarised in the answer to a question given by counsel representing the Arizona Republican Party to the Supreme Court, in a case brought by Democrats against the state of Arizona.
‘Overturning a restrictive Arizona law’, said Michael A. Carvin, the lawyer representing the Republican Party of Arizona, ‘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, referring to the part of the Voting Rights Act that is generally used to protect voting access for minority groups1.’
Underlying the case is the question of whether States can restrict voting access unimpeded.
‘Should the Republican argument prevail at the Supreme Court, where conservative justices hold a six-to-three majority, it could give the party’s lawmakers wide latitude to enact voting restrictions to eliminate early voting on Sundays, end third-party ballot collection and restrict who can receive an absentee ballot all voting mechanisms Democratic lawyers argued would disproportionately curtail voting access to people of color.’
Currently in Arizona the legislature is considering whether to raise to 60% the threshold to pass citizen led referendums. The context within which this initiative takes place is the recent passing of minimum wage and wealth tax ballots during the general election.
‘The key legal tool in question at the Supreme Court is Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which governs after-the-fact challenges to state voting laws. Limiting its application as the court did in 2013 with the Voting Rights Acts requirement that some states receive Justice Department clearance before changing voting laws or drawing new legislative maps could allow states to enact far more sweeping restrictions on voting, while increasing legal hurdles to overturn the new laws.’
Provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act were annulled by the 2013 Supreme Court judgement in the case Shelby County vs. Holder, which removed the requirement for federal oversight in some states that historically had implemented voter suppression policies under Jim Crow. It is section 2, the last remaining pillar of the VRA which is at stake in the current Supreme Court hearing.
Meanwhile, House Democrats are looking to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Bill — which at the time of writing has been read in the Senate and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary — and which aims to effectively overturn the annulment in some of the provisions in the VRA arising from Selby County vs. Holder. They have recently passed HR1, which seeks to expand voting rights by creating uniform national voting standards, overhaul campaign finance laws, andoutlaw partisan redistributing practices. The vote for the Bill was 220 for, 210 against, with no Republican voting in favour. However, the main institutional problem for the Democrats is the Senate; both the power exerted by right-wing Democrats due to the 50-50 balance of seats, and the preference of the administration to back down in the face of this power as well as to give in to their intransigence over the abolition of the Senate filibuster.
‘Meanwhile, state lawmakers are barreling ahead with major rollbacks of early voting, mail voting and other state provisions that Trump and other Republicans oppose, while the Supreme Court on Tuesday heard a challenge to Arizona’s election laws that could further curtail the federal government’s power to police elections2
‘The bills voting provisions would guarantee no-excuse mail voting and at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections; require states to use their government records to automatically register citizens to vote; restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences; and mandate the use of paper ballots3 ‘
However, the only path onto the statute books is through the abolition of the Senate filibuster, which right wing Democrats have vowed to oppose, and which Joe Biden has vowed to respect.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Currently, the Democrats control the House, the administration and the Senate through Kamala Harris’ casting vote. For more than a decade Republicans have been countering the declining weight of their largely white, rural and small town voter base by suppressing the votes of non-white communities. In Georgia the last three Georgia Secretary of State office holders, Karen Handed, Brian Kemp and Brad Raffenspurger, whose attention and diligence to voter suppression is nearly unparalleled4. Since Georgia was the state with some of longest standing voter suppression practices, and also the state that witnessed the most spectacular reversal due to the mobilisation of the black community in 2020 to produce record turnouts, it is one of the states with the strongest push backs in the form of legislation limiting voting rights.
Stacey Abrams who has probably done more than anyone to advance the fight against voter suppression in Georgia has said
‘Nationally, we have had a dramatic impact. So dramatic that at this moment, we know of 253 bills being introduced in 43 legislatures across the country because we were so effective at helping mitigate voter suppression
‘Georgia’s state House passed a bill this week that includes several measures that restrict voting access, including a ban on automatic voter registration, a limit on Sunday early voting days and ballot drop boxes, and a number of restrictions and ID requirements for absentee voting. The bills come after former President Donald Trump made baseless claims of a rigged 2020 election, saying there had been widespread voter fraud in Georgia. … the proposals directly target the methods used to mobilize Black voters. He said limiting Sunday early voting, for example, is a direct attack on ”Souls to the Polls”– which is a get-out-the-vote campaign led by Black churches. A CNN analysis found that Black voters made up 34.6% of the voters who cast early ballots on the three weekend voting days that could be eliminated under the proposal from Georgia lawmakers 5.
‘Nse Ufot, founder of the New South super PAC, said if any of the elections bills including such restrictions were a factor in November, when Joe Biden narrowly defeated then-President Trump in the presidential election and Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff advanced to Senate runoff races, the outcome in the traditionally red state could have been entirely different 6. ‘
The Guardian’s Sam Levine reported7
‘On Monday, the Georgia house of representatives approved a bill, HB531, that would implement sweeping changes to the states voting system. Among other measures, the bill would:
‘Require voters to provide identification information both with their absentee ballot application and the ballot itself. Limit election officials to offer just two days of early voting on the weekends, one of which is required to be a Saturday.
• Restrict early voting from 9am. to 5pm, with an option for election officials to extend hours from 7am to 7pm.
• Give voters less time to request an absentee ballot.
• Shorten the period for a runoff election from nine weeks to four.
‘In the state senate, there are also proposals to get rid of the states policy of automatically registering voters and to only allow voters to cast a ballot by mail if they are 65 or older or have a valid excuse. That would eliminate the so-called no-excuse absentee voting system Georgia Republicans yes Georgia Republicans enacted in 2005. ‘
Whilst the situation in Georgia attracts particular attention owing to the unprecedented voter turnout in the presidential and senatorial elections, it is by no means unique. According to the Brennan Centre for Justice8, ’Arizona leads the nation in proposed voter suppression legislation in 2021, with 19 restrictive bills. Pennsylvania comes in second with 14 restrictive policy proposals, followed by Georgia (11 bills), and New Hampshire (10 bills).’ Stacey Abrams has described the current nationwide situation in answer to a question about the chances of the bills passing thus.
‘They are all highly likely to pass. One raft of terrible bills have already come out of the Senate, another bill So one of the things they are doing is they’re taking different bills that are terrible and putting them all together in a package. The Senate package is already moving. The House package is in motion as well. And let’s be clear, Georgia is a singular example, but as I said earlier, 253 of these bills are moving through 43 legislative bodies.’
The only way to counter this reactionary offensive is through federal legislation such HR1. Such a process however recalls a fundamental issue which lies at the heart of the US Constitution, that is the question of supremacy and where it lies — at the federal level or at the level of the individual states. This is the question which lay behind the difficulties associated with the ratification of the Constitution and was the origin of the political party system; the cause of the civil war; the establishment of Jim Crow; and the push for desegregation. But in order to proceed with this test of strength the Democrats must make use of their majority in the Senate. However, the initial indications are not good.
After a little over one month in office the evidence is clear — the Biden administration seem to be relaxed about giving way to Republicans and right wing Democrats on the issues supported by the left, even issues on which the Presidential election was fought such as the $15 per hour minimum wage, but will strain every sinew to pursue its own projects such as the confirmation of Neera Tanden as head of the Office of Management and Budget.
The only reason that Neera Tanden’s nomination was withdrawn is that right wing Democrat Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is exercising more power over the Democrat caucus due to the 50-50 balance of forces than Kamala Harris is as the President of the Senate. Exactly the same thing happened when, having secured the withdrawal of the $15 per hour minimum wage Joe Manchin insisted that the stimulus payments in the coronavirus relief bill be means tested, thus removing 17 million Americans from support.
The $15 per hour minimum wage is arguably the most popular current policy alongside the covid relief bill itself, yet the right wing of the Democratic Party in the Senate is watering it down. Moreover, the left wing in the Democratic Party are refusing to exercise the same power that they have in the House – due to the narrow Democrat majority – as the power that Joe Manchin wields in the Senate.
The Democratic left in the House is larger than the Democrat House majority. Yet they have consistently put Party unity above fighting for their agenda, including on the minimum wage and the covid relief bill, whereas the Democrat right in the Senate put their hostility to progressive legislation above party unity. The resoluteness with which the Democrat right in the Senate blocks progressive policies, together with their refusal in the House to push progressive policies, and the refusal of the Democratic caucus in the Senate to abolish the Senate filibuster all indicate the existence of grave difficulties in advancing progressive policies before the midterm elections are able to change the current configuration in congress. At the same time, for all the speculations about the divisions in the Republican Party after the Trump presidency, the Republicans are voting as a party, resolutely opposing the Biden legislation, whereas, the right wing of the Democratic Party are asserting their power in the Senate and challenging or diluting aspects of the administration’s legislation.
Since it is highly doubtful that HR1 or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Bill can get filibuster exemptions, the prospect of mounting a stern defence of voting rights in Congress looks grim.
1Supreme Court Case Could Limit Options to Fight Republican Voting Restrictions ; Reid J. Epstein and Michael Wines; The New York Times; March 3, 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/us/politics/supreme-court-voting rights-act.html
2The voting wars come to Capitol Hill: Democrats eye national elections overhaul amid GOP crack down; MikeDeBonis and AmyGardner; March 03, 2021; https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/voting-rights battle/2021/03/02/3d213412-7af8-11eb-85cd-9b7fa90c8873 story.html
3House Democrats pass sweeping elections bill as GOP legislatures push to restrict voting ; Mike DeBonis; The Washing ton Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/house-elections-voting-pelosi-/2021/03/03/
4Stacey Abrams on American Idealism and American Betrayal; Kara Swisher, Stacey Abrams; The New York Times; March 04, 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/opinion/sway-kara-swisher-stacey-abrams.html
5’Dripping in the blood of Jim Crow’: Voting rights groups say GOP-backed bills in Georgia target Black voters ; Nicquel Terry Ellis; March 7, 2021; CNN; https://edition.cnn.com/2021/03/06/politics/georgia-voting-rights-jim-crow/index.html
6Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia’s record turnout; ARIS FOLLEY; The Hill; March 06, 2021; https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/541810-advocates-warn-restrictive-voting-bills-could-end-Georgias-record turnout?amp
7Fight to vote: This is how Georgia Republicans are attacking democracy; Sam Levine; The Guardian; March 04, 2021; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/04/fight-to-vote-georgia-republicans-attacking-democracy
8Voting Laws Roundup: February 2021 ; Brennan Centre for Justice; Februaury 08, 2021; https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-february-2021