The assault on voting rights started on a Thursday in late March, in Georgia. It was in Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s office, with himself and six state house members, all white, under an oil painting of the Callaway Plantation on the wall (showing the white manor house, not the slaves bent over the cotton), with a pen on the table, ready to sign the new Georgia state election law. Outside the office, a black state representative, Park Cannon, was knocking discreetly but insistently to get in.
Representative Cannon was arrested. The new bill was signed into law. Among its provisions is one that says it all: it will be a crime from now on to bring water to voters in line—and election lines in Georgia can be hours long.
The historic record of 155 million votes cast in the last presidential election isn’t a democratic achievement—for some, it’s an insufferable problem. Persuade your voters to show up? No, better to stop the other side from voting. The battle for civil rights 2.0 has begun.
The Brennan Center for Justice, an institute at New York University, surveyed 250 laws in 43 states that restrict voting. This is a well-planned assault waged by the Republican Party, which in late February launched the “Committee on Election Integrity” and allocated millions to fund the legal defense of the new laws. It’s an aggression built on the “vote fraud” mantra that former President Donald Trump had recited before, during and after the elections, up to the moment of the invasion of the Capitol by shock troops. In the courts, the campaign was hopelessly struck down: all but one of the lawsuits filed were lost—but its myth lives on stubbornly in the minds and hearts of the Grand Old Party.
For its part, the Democratic Party passed its own new election law in the House at the beginning of March, a breezy 791-page text that weighs as much as a telephone book and is almost as interesting to read. It passed by 220 votes to 200, but will stop dead in the Senate, where 60 votes out of 100 are needed (while the Democrats are 50 plus Vice President Harris). Among other things, it wanted to enshrine the primacy of federal regulations over more restrictive state regulations. And the imaginative Republican state lawmakers have come up with a lot of restrictions.
It’s no coincidence that it was Georgia that passed the first ill-intentioned reform, which President Joe Biden has called “atrocious” and said it recalled Jim Crow, the segregationist legislation swept away by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It’s the state that voted for its two senators last, because of the runoff system, and, instead of the two Republican candidates, one known as a financial speculator and the other as a billionaire given the role by default, elected two Democrats and gave the U.S. Senate over to new President Joe Biden. And it was Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger whom Trump called on the phone during the grueling recount, asking him in no uncertain terms, “I just want to find 11,780 votes, Brad.” For Georgia Republicans, the last election was a catastrophe, and they circled the wagons.
Georgia’s new law, as mentioned, makes it a crime to bring water or food to voters in line—more than a felony, a crime that can bring jail time. The lines at the last presidential elections were of epic length, but even the usual lines are segregated by color: in white precincts, the average wait is 6 minutes, while in black precincts the average is 51 minutes, according to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that was immediately filed against the new law.
Georgia U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a person known for tweets approving calls for Obama to be killed, commented: “Standing in line to vote is not voter suppression, it’s just part of the voting process, just like people stand in line to buy groceries at the grocery store.” For eight hours, like at the last presidential election?
The appalling ban on early voting on Sundays (when Black churches fill entire buses with worshippers for “souls to the polls” initiatives) has been lifted, but ID checks for mail voting are being severely tightened, mobile polling places are being fiercely restricted, drop boxes where votes by mail can be dropped off are being made scarce, as well as other niceties like halving the time during which you can vote. And Brad Raffensperger, who had refused to steal the famous 11,780 votes, is no longer in charge of elections, replaced by a committee, which is seen as more willing to toe the line.
In the rest of the United States, state Houses are full of proposals. In Wisconsin, there is only one ballot box per city—one for New Berlin, which has 40,000 inhabitants, and one for Milwaukee, which has 600,000. In Iowa, the time during which early polling places on campuses or in shopping malls can function has been almost eliminated. In Arizona, mail-in ballots are banned unless requested at every election, and, according to one proposal, the state legislature would be able to choose electors as it pleases.
Then, there are the contradictions. In Nebraska, the Republicans want the winner-takes-all system to pick the electors (they lost the Democratic bastion of Omaha), while in New Hampshire they want to change that (where they haven’t had a congressman elected in five consecutive elections) and are proposing mandatory gerrymandering, i.e. the politically skewed redrawing of electoral districts, to secure at least one federal congressman. In a number of states, it will be forbidden to accept donations for electoral facilities, which have been a target for a long time, and not by accident—like the 400 million donated by Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg for masks, gloves and disinfectants. Now it’s open season, with the complicity of the very Republican-leaning Supreme Court, which has already passed favorable decisions on some anti-election laws and seems ready to mount an assault on the historic Voting Rights Act.
The attack on voting rights has begun, and a perfect illustration is the case of Martin Luther King’s cousin, Mrs. Christine Jordan, who, after standing in the exhausting line at her polling station in downtown Atlanta (which is an athletic feat at age 94) was refused because she “had moved.” She had been voting there since her illustrious relative led the civil rights movement and got voting rights for Blacks, the Nobel Peace Prize and a shot in the head for his efforts. What gave her the right to vote was the famous law introduced by John F. Kennedy in June 1963—who would himself be shot in the head in November of the same year, in Dallas.
And now, we start again from the beginning.