CAPITAL & MAIN - Over the summer, three members of the Congressional Black Caucus — Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) — have been arrested at the U.S. Capitol while demanding action on two voting rights laws.
Detained, their wrists zip-tied, the representatives have said they’ve lost patience with a deadlocked Senate that’s failed to counter an onslaught of state laws that make it harder to vote.
“I believe when you’re getting into good trouble, when you realize the 15th Amendment has guaranteed the fundamental right to vote, any action that is a peaceful action of civil disobedience is worthy and more to push all of us to do better and to do more,” said Jackson Lee in a video posted on Twitter.
Even amid a pandemic, voter turnout surged in the 2020 elections, with nearly 67% of eligible voters casting ballots, propelling Joe Biden to the White House and flipping two long-red states blue. But many of the ways people voted last year are now illegal, thanks to a barrage of laws restricting access to the ballot box. With primaries for the 2022 elections just months away — and off-year elections weeks away — voting rights groups, progressives and Democrats have several tasks: to demand that Congress and the president protect the vote, and develop strategies to help people vote.
So far this year, 18 states have enacted 30 laws making it harder for Americans to vote and targeting people likely to vote for Democrats. They include laws to reduce the number of ballot drop boxes and early voting days, expand voter roll purges, tighten ID requirements and prohibit giving snacks and water to voters waiting in line. Although even more laws were passed to expand voter access, they are in states where voting was already fairly uncomplicated, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
The most onerous restrictions may be on the way. The Brennan Center is tracking nearly 400 bills across 48 states that could put up more voting roadblocks.
Since November, Republican lawmakers have sought to make mail-in voting tougher, by eliminating no-excuse absentee voting and adding ID restrictions.
The reason for the restrictions, say their sponsors, is to protect “voter integrity.” The sponsors use the rationale that voter fraud must be stopped, even though there is zero evidence of widespread fraud in 2020 or any recent election. These lawmakers are also buoyed by former President Donald Trump’s insistence, also without evidence, that a massive Democratic conspiracy and fraud kept him from a second term. More than half of Republican voters believe him.
Trump’s “Big Lie,” now weaponized by restrictive voting laws, comes as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld voting rights limits in Arizona in July and took away tools provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to halt voting restrictions. Progressive-leaning grassroots groups say all of this sets up Democrats for electoral massacres starting with next year’s midterm elections unless bold action is taken soon.
Target: Democratic Voters
Historically, neither party had the edge in voting by mail or absentee ballot. But that changed in 2020, when Biden voters were nearly twice as likely as Trump voters to say they voted by mail, possibly because Democrats urged voters to use an option safer than standing in line in polling places. Since November, Republican lawmakers have sought to make mail-in voting tougher, by eliminating no-excuse absentee voting and adding ID restrictions.
“The GOP is making a flawed calculation that (vote by mail) is so good for Dems, they have to stop it,” says Jessica Huseman for VoteBeat, a nonpartisan election administration watchdog. “The Democrats did a lot to organize voting by mail. GOP did not. The person they were trying to elect, Donald Trump, did not like vote by mail and he said so much garbage about it.”
In theory, absentee voting restrictions could also hurt Republicans, especially in rural areas. But Huseman says on balance more laws are “surgically” targeted at Democratic voters. “If these bills only targeted vote by mail, it might be jointly felt, but they go further by ending Sunday voting and many other restrictions.”
Sunday voting, nicknamed Souls to the Polls, is a tradition of Black churchgoers registering or voting en masse after church. Georgia, not coincidentally, has a high African American population, and strategists believe the Black vote was pivotal to both Biden’s win and the flipping of two GOP Senate seats.
Georgia House Bill 531, which passed one chamber earlier this year, restricted in-person voting to one Sunday. Its final passage is uncertain as critics have assailed it for disproportionately impacting Black voters, who, at 30% of the registered electorate in Georgia, were 36% of Sunday voters.
Political scientists have determined that states with the most hurdles to voting have, since the mid-1990s, had the lowest rates of voter participation. Research has also shown that white voters, who are more likely to vote Republican, tend consistently to vote at higher rates than voters of color, who are much more likely to vote Democratic.
Arizona passed three laws this year aimed at restricting voting. It’s a big reversal for a state where nearly 80% of voters cast their ballots early in 2018.
“This is a five alarm fire and Democrats must understand this,” says Rachel Bitcofer, a polling expert and co-founder of a Democratic super PAC, Strike Force. “The GOP is in full frontal assault on voting.”
In Arizona, a pivotal state that last year went Democratic in a presidential election for only the second time in seven decades, GOP lawmakers passed three laws this year aimed at curtailing voting. It’s a big reversal for a state that’s had flexible early voting for 30 years and where nearly 80% of Arizona voters cast their ballots early in 2018.
Eduardo Sainz, national field director for Mi Famila Vota, says Arizona’s Republican state lawmakers used to favor making it easier to vote, including allowing people to drop off ballots at any precinct. “Now that you see more people of color participating there are direct attacks on (voting by mail) by Republicans. There is a clear target on nontraditional or occasional voters.”
Also in Arizona, a recent ban on “ballot harvesting” or collection of ballots by a third party was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state has not budgeted money to educate voters on the new laws, but will notify Arizonans of changes through “earned media, social media and on our website,” a spokesperson for the secretary of state wrote in an email. That means much of the voter outreach and education will fall to grassroots organizations like Mi Familia Vota. “We did all this work telling voters that you can drop off your ballot anywhere, but now we have to tell them they can’t,” Sainz says.
Mi Familia Vota was party to a lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this month against new election laws that they say would disproportionately hurt voters of color.
New laws in Arizona, as well as Montana, will make it much harder for Native and Indigenous people — who already participate in lower numbers than other groups — to register and vote, according to Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
“Many live on dirt roads, far from places to register,” De León says. “We have to pool resources so people don’t have to make a 50 mile trip twice, once to register, and again to vote.” In places that see snow in November, many roads are nearly impassable, she added.
Shutting Down Registration Drives in Kansas
A chilling effect on voting and voter registration is already being felt in Kansas, where at least two nonprofit voter registration organizations shut down operations to avoid being jailed under a new law. That legislation makes it a felony crime, with punishment of up to 17 months in prison and a $100,000 fine, to engage in activity that “gives the appearance of being an election official.” The largest county in the state has declined to enforce that law, and a coalition of organizations are challenging it in court. But until it is struck down or more clarification is given, voting rights groups felt it necessary to stop registration activities, according to Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the Kansas League of Women Voters.
“There was already a crime to impersonate an election official on the books,” Lightcap says. “(There are) too many questions with the (new) law. Can we use bigger signs? Can we wear T-shirts to identify ourselves? On twitter and websites we state that we are not election officials.”
Many voters are not happy with the new law regardless of party, says Lightcap. “We usually get thanked for filling in gaps that county election officials can’t.
We work closely with counties on voter registration.” She declined to say whether the law was meant to hurt one party, but added that the most generous interpretation of the lawmakers’ efforts was “they don’t understand how voting works.”
Caleb Smith, voter engagement director for the nonpartisan voting advocacy organization Kansas Appleseed, says his group also shut down voter registration drives, at least temporarily, because “volunteers don’t want to open themselves up to jail time.”
“This will definitely have a chilling effect on voting and voter registration and that is the intention. It is an off year, but a constitutional amendment is on the ballot. Only 19% vote in off years.”
Grassroots to the President and Congress: Play Hardball
Two bills to restore and protect voting rights, HR1, or the “For the People Act of 2021,” and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, both appear dead in the Senate unless the rule requiring 60 votes to end debate is eliminated. Republicans are unanimously against the bills, and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has even said HR1 was “written in hell by the devil himself.”
While President Biden has denounced voting restrictions as un-American, even calling them “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War,” he does not favor amending Senate rules to circumvent Republican opposition. Nor do two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), want to end the body’s 60-vote threshold for cloture — often called the filibuster — a parliamentary procedure that Republicans use to prevent either bill from even being debated. Sinema has said she wants to keep the rule in place to promote bipartisanship. Manchin says he’s open to lowering the threshold for debate to 55 votes, which still makes any bill dead on arrival in a 50-50 split Senate where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaking vote.
“Our coalition of One Arizona registered 700K voters in 10 years and most are progressive and first generation immigrants. They helped [Kyrsten Sinema] flip the state. She needs to do a better job.”
~ Eduardo Sainz, national field director for Mi Famila Vota
Grassroots voting rights groups are increasingly impatient with Democrats in D.C. wringing their hands over Republican opposition when so much is at stake. Sainz, based in Arizona, expresses frustration with Sinema’s refusal to end the 60-vote threshold. “Our coalition of One Arizona registered 700K voters in 10 years and most are progressive and first generation immigrants. They helped her flip the state. She needs to do a better job.”
Other grassroots leaders are stepping up their demands on Democrats in Congress and on President Biden.
“Democrats need to play hardball right now,” the Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, told Capital & Main. “All of these states are passing laws without a 60 vote threshold, so why should the Senate use that to stop (voting rights)?” Barber had harsh words for Sinema and Manchin, saying they are “engaging in modern day nullification and threatening the entire democracy.”
Pointing to the walkout of Texas Democrats to prevent sweeping GOP-backed bills from passing, Barber suggests Senate Democrats take bolder actions to uphold the right to vote, including holding up the passage of President Biden’s infrastructure package.
“Democrats must use every bit of strength to say to Manchin and Sinema, ‘No money until you do the right thing.’ Make this part of infrastructure, because it is. These laws undermine the infrastructure of democracy.”
He also urged continued mass protests until such laws are passed. One protest intended to move Manchin, a motorcade through West Virginia, took place Aug. 26, and a national march for voting rights will happen on Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C., and other cities. Barber was part of a multifaith coalition of religious leaders co-signing a letter to Biden, Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), demanding an end to the “coward filibuster,” restoration and expansion of protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, passage of all provisions John Lewis wrote in the original For the People Act, and a $15 minimum wage. (Barber blasts Manchin and Sinema for stripping a $15 hourly minimum wage provision from the COVID relief bill.) Barber says the letter, sent several weeks ago, has gone unanswered.
There have already been several protests in D.C. and elsewhere this summer, including a sit-in on Sen. Sinema’s office, leading to the arrest of dozens, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr.
Can Grassroots Out-Organize Voting Restrictions?
Privately, President Biden’s allies told civil rights leaders that, should voting protections not be passed by Congress, they will need to “out organize” laws that would otherwise disenfranchise voters.
Progressive grassroots voter groups say the onus for fighting voter suppression shouldn’t fall on them. In an email to Capital & Main, Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, urged the president and Congress to do more. “Supporters of democracy will continue to organize and advocate, but we cannot organize our way out of this threat,” he wrote. “ It is up to our elected officials to hear supporters and act to protect our democracy.”
Barber also said talk about out-organizing voter suppression without federal intervention is a retreat from what then-candidate Biden and other Democrats promised in 2020.
Unless the most onerous of the new voting laws can themselves be suppressed, voting rights activists and progressive groups will have no choice but to do exactly what Biden is suggesting: out-organize the suppression. And given that the party out of power tends to gain seats in midterm elections, Democrats already start at a disadvantage in 2022.
Efforts to mobilize and educate voters cost time and money. As far as a national strategy for Democrats, Kamala Harris announced in July that the Democratic National Committee would spend an extra $25 million to register voters and fight voter suppression. House Democrats are pushing a scaled-back voting rights bill with the hopes that Republicans in the Senate at least wouldn’t block debate on it.
All progressive groups need to stoke Democratic anger about GOP voter suppression efforts, Bitcofer believes. “Organizations need to make a clear argument and hammer voting rights. Make it clear that this next election cycle is make or break to access the ballot.”
Grassroots groups understand that they’ll still be hamstrung, even with the most vigorous get out the vote efforts, unless courts step in to roll back the laws or unless Congress takes action. That’s why activists are setting the stakes in stark terms.
“This is a moment that can shape history,” Barber says. “If you allow these laws to stand, you let oligarchs suppress using the lie of fraud and protection, then you can create autocracy. Losing is not an option.”
(Larry Buhl is a writer and radio producer based in Los Angeles. He's a regular contributor to Art & Understanding, ATTN:, and DeSmogBlog and Capital & Main where this was first published. He has produced for the BBC, Marketplace, Free Speech Radio News and Pacifica radio.)