Politicians from both parties loudly praise the courage of Ukrainians who are defending their democracy against the Russian invasion. Yet the bipartisan defense of democracy disappears when it comes to democracy at home. March 7 marked the 57th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, when the police attack on a peaceful march by black people seeking the right to vote in Selma, Alabama sparked outrage that led to the adoption of the Voting Rights Act.
Today, the right to vote is again questioned.
We are witnessing the second major vote suppression campaign in American history. The first came after the Civil War, when the Constitutional Amendment to free slaves and secure the vote for African Americans sparked a vicious backlash across the South to impose segregation and remove the franchise.
Today, Republican politicians are making it difficult to vote, especially for those in urban areas, Native American reservations and college campuses. In July 2021, the Brennan Center reported that lawmakers introduced at least 389 restrictive bills in 48 states during the 2021 legislative sessions, while 17 states enacted 28 new laws that restrict voting access.
Partisan gerrymandering has been allowed by right-wing Supreme Court justices. Worse, electoral officials are attacked. One in six has received threats of violence; one in three say they do not feel safe. As President Joe Biden said, “We face the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”
The reason for the attack is clear. After 2020, Republicans know they are in the minority, and their prospects are deteriorating with younger, more diverse voters. In the last presidential election, Donald Trump won 74 million votes, but Joe Biden won 81 million.
When the House of Representatives passed legislation to revive the Voting Rights Act, what previously had bipartisan support passed, albeit with partisan division. Similarly, when the Senate considered the For the People Act to create federal suffrage guarantees, limit the role of secret money in politics, and curb gerrymandering, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah l described as a bill “written in hell by the Devil himself. Republicans used a filibuster to block passage of both bills.
Selma’s birthday reminds us how democracy is defended. Southern senators blocked reform at the federal level for years. In the states, police and organized terror enforced the suppression of black votes.
African Americans won the right to vote because we and our allies marched for it, demonstrated for it, were beaten and died for it. And finally, after Selma, people of conscience demanded that the country live up to its Constitution and its democratic ideals. It was then that President Lyndon Johnson was able to overcome the filibuster and pass the Voting Rights Act.
If the new voter suppression effort is to be overcome, it will not come from the White House or Congress. The Justice Department will do its best, but will face obstruction from right-wing judges. In Republican-controlled states, the onslaught is brazen and clear.
What is needed now is a massive, relentless and passionate organization to get people on the ballot and getting them to the polls. The mobilized people will not be intimidated. With organization, past tricks and pitfalls to suppress voting can be overcome. Workers will have to make sacrifices if early voting hours are limited. Urban voters will have to endure long lines, as polling stations are eliminated. Mail-in ballots will face more hurdles. College students may need to arrange the necessary ID to qualify to vote on their campuses.
What is at stake is the direction of the country. Republicans voted against raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, support for families with children, affordable child care, affordable prescription drugs and fair taxes for the wealthy. They oppose action against catastrophic climate change. They vote against reproductive choice, civil rights, environmental and worker protections. They oppose free college education and student debt relief.
All of these are supported by the vast majority of Americans. So the Republicans are trying to make it harder to vote.
We don’t have to risk Ku Klux Klan bullets or southern sheriff batons like the Selma walkers faced. We must organize to make our voices heard and our votes cast and counted. Historically, the core Reform majority — African Americans, Hispanics, single women, young people — run in smaller numbers in off-year elections.
We can’t afford it this year. The issue is literally what kind of country we will live in.
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