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GOP Suppression Efforts Escalate as Voting Rights Bill Fails in Senate

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t wait for the voting rights bill to fail to go on the offensive.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference at Buc-ee's travel center on November 22, 2021.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did not wait for fellow Republicans to finish blockading federal voting rights legislation in the Senate before ramping up suppression efforts in his home state. Experts and activists say DeSantis is clearly targeting Black and Brown voters.

In an unusual move on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, DeSantis proposed an alternative political map for Florida that experts said would dilute the power of Latino voters and effectively eliminate two majority-Black voting districts out of only four in the state. DeSantis then asked Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature for nearly $6 million to create the nation’s first state police force for enforcing election laws, including sweeping new voting restrictions he signed into law last year.

DeSantis’s proposed poll patrols would ultimately answer to the governor, raising fears of voter intimidation in a state where Republicans gutted a constitutional amendment meant to restore voting rights for hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, the first Black woman to serve as co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, the legendary incubator for the southern civil rights movement where King and Rosa Parks trained, said DeSantis’s call for an Office of Election Crimes and Security targeting voters “wasn’t even a dog whistle, it was overtly racist.”

“I’m disgusted, because literally residents across the state — and Florida is a huge state — said that formerly incarcerated people deserve the right to vote, said they wanted drive-through voting and mail-in ballots, and his response is, ‘all this is voter fraud,’” Henderson said. “But there is no scientific evidence to show there is this intentional voter fraud happening.”

DeSantis is hungry for right-wing media attention, and the proposals were a broad swipe at Democrats and civil rights groups, who spent the past year accusing Republican-controlled states of reviving Jim Crow with a wave of voter suppression laws. The laws passed in the wake of former President Trump’s mendacious attempts at overthrowing the 2020 election with false claims of voter fraud.

DeSantis is signaling that the GOP will take up every inch of ground abandoned by Democrats in the fight over ballot access, which has once again ignited mass civil rights protests. While it’s unclear whether DeSantis will ultimately implement new election police in Florida, he knew the federal legislation that could block such a proposal was likely to fail on Wednesday. And it did.

After an intense day of debate over race and democracy in the U.S., the Senate rejected by a razor-thin margin the Democratic push to pass their landmark voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote: John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was championed by Black leaders as an important step toward addressing racist suppression. The Senate’s 50 Republicans united against the bill, which they deride as a federal takeover of elections — a revival of segregationist arguments against the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to voting rights groups.

Henderson and other observers say DeSantis’s timing is obvious as Republicans continue to push back on any progress made by Black people since the 2020 uprisings for racial justice. The governor rails against anti-racist education, and this week he pushed a bill designed to shield white people from feeling “discomfort” from discussion about the nation’s racist past at work and in public schools.

“DeSantis is using his bully pulpit to wave a flag of white supremacy and fascism and anti-democracy in the face of what has been amazing multi-racial, Back-led movement for voting rights and racial justice,” Henderson said.

Two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who say they support the voting rights bill, sided with Republicans and refused to tweak filibuster rules so the bill could pass with a simple majority. Both senators refused to budge on the filibuster despite intense pressure from civil rights activists and warnings from colleagues and President Joe Biden that a “no” vote would land them on the wrong side of history.

“When exceptions to the filibuster are made to raise the debt limit and to push through Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, we refuse to believe that you can’t make the exception so that Black and Brown folks, folks with disabilities, folks with criminal records, and so many more of us can have our right to vote protected,” said Rep. Cori Bush, a Black Democrat from Missouri, in a statement after the vote.

As the Senate prepared to vote, election officials and disabilities advocates continued raising alarms about voter suppression in Texas, where voting rights groups and the Justice Department are challenging new statewide voting restrictions and alleged attempts at brazen racial gerrymandering that aggressively dilute Black and Brown voting power.

Thousands of Texans are receiving letters from the state informing them that they are flagged as potential non-citizens and could be purged from voter rolls, forcing long-time U.S. citizens to hand over paperwork, according to the Associated Press. Dana DeBeauvoir, the clerk of Travis Country, which includes Austin, said hundreds of mail-in ballot applications were rejected due to confusion over strict new ID requirements passed by the Republican lawmakers last year.

“My friends, this is what voter suppression looks like,” DeBeauvoir said in a press conference on Tuesday.

While DeBeauvoir tussled with Republican state officials over who’s to blame for the confusion over the ID rules, voting rights groups warned a number of other changes to Texas law are designed to intimidate voters and purge them from the rolls. The Texas law, known as SB1, enhanced criminal penalties and paperwork for people who assist voters, creating hurdles for elderly and disabled voters and the people who care for them.

“Different needs require different forms of assistance,” Molly Broadway, a voting support specialist with Disability Rights Texas, told KXAN Austin. “They can misinterpret a proper form of assistance as illegal assistance.”

Henderson said the gears of voter suppression are now grinding beyond Texas and Florida, including in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Henderson, who is a leader of the Movement for Black Lives coalition, said it’s clear why voters are increasingly threatened with criminal penalties, polling police, empowered partisan poll watchers and immigration enforcement in the wake of intense protests against police violence. After all, Black and Brown are disproportionately criminalized and targeted by police.

About 200 new measures passed in at least 19 states last year make it harder to vote, and more are expected to come now that the Senate failed to pass the voting rights legislation. Along with other measures, the voting rights bill would make Election Day a federal holiday, mandate two weeks of early voting and restore federal oversight of states that erected barriers for Black and Brown voters in the past.

“It’s not hyperbolic to understand this as a racist intervention; the highest concentration of Black people in the country is in the South,” Henderson said. “The timing of it is very clearly and overtly a response to Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian-descended and white folks coming out to say we have a different vision, a vision for Build Back Better and defunding the police.”

Republicans flatly reject that their “election integrity” efforts have a racial dimension and say Jim Crow ended years ago, but Henderson said the fight for voting rights did not end in the 1960s. Voters in majority-Black districts still wait in long lines all over the country. Attempts at racial gerrymandering in states such as Texas and Florida follow a long tradition splitting up Black, Brown and Indigenous voter strongholds to dilute their power.

“It’s a tactical intervention in order to consolidate their wealth and power because they are losing it,” Henderson said.

Democrats exploit their structural advantages as well, including through gerrymandering, allowing Republican to paint the voting rights legislation as a partisan power grab. However, Republicans have controlled a majority of state legislatures for the past decade, giving their party disproportionate control over political maps that shape elections. Before losing the Senate majority, the GOP stacked federal courts with conservatives as voting rights cases wound their way through the judiciary.

In 2020, unprecedented voter turnout gave Democrats their own an advantage by handing the party control of Congress and the White House — and, activists say, a mandate to deliver on voting rights. Yet Manchin and Sinema ensured that the Democrats could not use this advantage, and the voting rights fight would continue as it has for decades.

“We are not starting a conversation yesterday,” Henderson said. “We are talking about a centuries-old conversation in this country — if Black people are able to participate in this democracy.”

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