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GOP Isn’t Holding Back on Voter Suppression. Democrats Must Go on Offensive.

We need federal legislation to preempt voting restrictions at the national level.

Supporters of the Freedom Ride for Voting Rights chant on the National Mall during a rally near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 26, 2021.

Part of the Series

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans voted against the For the People Act, which would have strengthened access to the ballot. If we take this vote at face value, we must acknowledge that Joe Biden’s 47 years in the Senate, Kamala Harris’s time in the Senate and her presiding over this process, and Chuck Schumer’s experience and leadership means nothing because they couldn’t ensure passage of this bill. This means that Mitch McConnell is still the majority leader setting the agenda for the Senate. The right to vote is that important, and Tuesday’s failed vote is an indication that we need to escalate. Unless we are prepared to concede those points, then we must escalate our fight for voting rights protection. We need to act like this is the urgent and existential threat to our democracy that it is.

In the November 2020 election, voters turned out in massive numbers. Americans expressed their desire for a country that works for and includes all. Many of us felt we turned a corner in terms of registering and turning out voters. But progress wasn’t pleasing to all. In an unprecedented attempt to stifle electoral participation, Republican legislatures across the country responded to the November election by enacting a wave of measures that will make it harder for communities of color to vote.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, between January 1 and May 14, 2021, 14 states have passed 22 laws making it harder for Americans to vote. Considering many legislatures are still in session and at least one chamber of many legislatures has passed measures making it harder to vote, there is good reason to expect additional barriers to the ballot box. Given this unprecedented political engineering and gamesmanship, the greatest threat to U.S. democracy is proving to be voter suppression.

If Republicans can control who votes and when they vote, they can pass any number of laws without consequence or fear of losing their seats. They can hold a fierce grip on power, no matter what they do.

Right now, every state has different laws governing who can vote, how they vote and when they vote. This patchwork of policies makes it difficult for voters, let alone voting rights advocates, to navigate or push back on voting restrictions and protect their constitutional right to vote. It also increases the likelihood of voters being unfairly criminalized for not knowing the ever-changing rules in their respective jurisdictions. This newest crop of voting restrictions is not about election integrity, as Republicans claim. It is part of a broader attempt to hold onto power.

For Republicans, nothing is more urgent. Even in the U.S. Congress, where there has been record in-fighting between the Never Trumpers and Trump 2024 camps, Republicans have unified around the goal of restricting the franchise. For this batch of legislators, no other policy proposals appear to matter. One of their main points of agreement is a mission to make it harder for people of color to vote.

Democrats, on the other hand, have yet to discern how to lead with the authority granted them in 2020, in defense of the right to vote. They are still expending too much effort trying to get a recalcitrant party to agree to ensure Americans’ fundamental rights.

Democracy advocates must be laser-focused because we are at ground zero. Many of us have spent our lives working for access to the ballot. When we organize and turn people out to vote; we are not interested in the personality of the person they are voting for, we are interested in what each candidate will do to make life better for marginalized people. We are tired of living in a nation that refuses to accept our full participation, and we need leaders who appreciate our concerns and desire to have agency over our lives, schools and communities.

That means we will evaluate elected leaders not by whether they show up but by what they do when they show up. We are not interested in campaign pledges; we are interested in action.

It is nice that Vice President Harris has been appointed by the White House to lead this charge, but we must be clear that nothing short of progress will appease us. We are not interested in historic appointments if those appointments don’t deliver on the very thing the American people have been demanding: agency over their communities, resources for their communities, a chance to live free from fear and with full participation in our nation’s democracy.

We need federal legislation to govern how elections are run across the country and prevent state legislatures from restricting the franchise for political gain. The late Rep. John Lewis spent his life fighting for the right to vote, and such legislation was the last political battle he took on before his death. He understood what too many of us take for granted: Instead of trying to beat the hundreds of voter suppression bills one by one, we need federal legislation to preempt voting restrictions at the national level.

Senator Schumer must now determine how to protect the right to vote. But I will caution our leaders that pivoting to the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is an attempt to kick the can down the road; it is a rhetorical red-herring. Even suggesting this pivot tells me Republican and conservative Democrats think that we’re incompetent. Just because it carries John Lewis’s name doesn’t mean it does the same things that the For the People Act does. We need both. Going back to square one is going backwards. It is not moving us forward. Furthermore, there is nothing that precludes Congress from doing both. Framing this issue as an either/or is a false choice.

The For the People Act would have set a federal standard for elections and prevent states from developing policies that would make it harder to vote. States would no longer be able to limit early voting, because it is proven to help people vote. They would not be able to restrict and consolidate drop boxes, because doing so makes it more difficult for voters to cast a ballot.

Democrats have a slim majority in Congress. They cannot risk that majority by moving slowly, cautiously, carefully. They must match Republicans’ intensity and treat attacks on voting rights as existential threats.

Advocates will not be pacified by symbolic measures that fail to yield change. We do not want to be placated. We want the job done. We are also not interested in being patronized by congressional leaders whose interest is merely maintaining safe legislative districts at all costs, especially when we know exactly which communities will be disproportionately shouldered with that cost: marginalized communities.

We are at ground zero. Elected officials must act like it.

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