Andre M. Perry
Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro
Senior Research Assistant - Brookings Metro
Just three short months ago, a violent mob overran our nation’s Capitol Building to revolt against certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Many of the rioters carried signs proclaiming “Stop the Steal”—reflecting the lies that President Donald Trump and his team stoked about voter fraud. Today, many elected officials are using that same pretext to dismantle the voting rights won during the civil rights movement.
As many Republican officials continue to spread lies about the last election, they are working in state legislatures across the country to create the conditions that will allow them to suppress enough votes to win future elections. Just as President Trump targeted voters in majority-Black cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, these state lawmakers are taking their cues from the old white supremacy playbook, which teaches: If you can’t win fair and square, then suppress the vote.
In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp just signed into law a bill that adds many obstacles to voting, including reducing the number of ballot boxes, shrinking the window for early voting, adding additional photo ID requirements, and allowing state officials to circumvent the work of county election officials if they don’t like the outcomes they are seeing. The Georgia bill even goes so far as to make it illegal for outside groups to give water or food to voters stuck in long lines.
“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve seen since the Jim Crow era,” Georgia state Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Democrat, said of the bill.
Georgia is sadly not alone in its assault on democracy. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “As of March 24, legislators have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states.”
These bills are the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which said that state and local governments with a history of discrimination are no longer required to preclear amendments to voting laws and processes with the federal government.
“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in its 5-4 ruling. “Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.”
But the recent flood of voter suppression bills is a powerful reminder that voter registration and turnout in those states rose dramatically in the years since passage of the Voting Rights Act because of that preclearance. It is no coincidence that the day after the Shelby ruling, North Carolina lawmakers began work on a voter suppression bill that the United States Court of Appeals would later strike down, finding that the provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Indeed, voter suppression for party and voter suppression of race are intricately connected. For example, in 2020, The Guardian found that growing Black and Latino or Hispanic neighborhoods in Texas saw the majority of polling station closures.
This year, the Supreme Court will decide another landmark case that will determine the future of the Voting Rights Act. This case revolves around Section 2 of the act, which expressly forbids any election law that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” This is important because it focuses attention on disparate outcomes regardless of the legislation’s purported intent. Section 2 provides protections so that even if unscrupulous lawmakers use the pretext of voter fraud, their suppression efforts can be challenged. If the Court rules against Section 2, it will further embolden voter suppression efforts like the Georgia bill.
The United States is supposed to be a bastion of political freedom and democratic participation. Indeed, our foreign policy explicitly claims to advance these values abroad. But if we are suppressing the vote at home, what does that say about the values we supposedly hold? Fifty-six years after passing the Voting Rights Act to counter the systemic oppression encoded into law through the Jim Crow regime, we find ourselves right back in the fight to ensure that every American has the opportunity to help direct the future of the nation.
It is time to stop the real steal. We need new federal legislation that will defend voting rights against the encroachment of unscrupulous lawmakers. And we also need the Supreme Court to do its job in vindicating minority rights against the tyranny of white supremacy and systemic racism.