Voter dis­en­fran­chise­ment ig­nored as pres­i­den­tial elec­tion ap­proaches

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - Leonard Pitts Jr.

This is an emer­gency. Elec­tion Day is lit­tle more than four months off, and vot­ers are fac­ing their most im­por­tant choice since 1860: Don­ald Trump or Amer­ica? It’s a decision that will de­fine the fu­ture.

And mil­lions of us won­der if we’ll get to have our say.

Such is the state of things seven years al­most to the day since the Supreme Court dis­em­bow­eled The Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, specif­i­cally the sec­tion re­quir­ing states and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with his­to­ries of vot­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion to ob­tain fed­eral ap­proval be­fore chang­ing their bal­lot­ing pro­ce­dures.

Writ­ing for the ma­jor­ity, Chief Jus­tice John Roberts jus­ti­fied the rul­ing by point­ing out that the ra­cial dis­par­i­ties in voter reg­is­tra­tion and turnout that ex­isted in 1965 no longer did. In other words, the fact that the act worked proved it was no longer needed. The en­su­ing years have made him look like a fool.

With the act out of the way, Repub­li­cans have un­leashed an ex­plo­sion of mea­sures — purges, shut­down of early vot­ing, at­tacks on ab­sen­tee bal­lots, clo­sure of polling places — all pu­ta­tively to fight voter fraud. But in fix­ing a problem that doesn’t ex­ist, the GOP, not ac­ci­den­tally, cre­ated one that is very real, mak­ing vot­ing an en­durance test for peo­ple of color. African Amer­i­cans now wait longer to vote, have fewer places to do so and face more ob­sta­cles along the way than they have in 55 years.

And sud­denly Amer­ica is the na­tion that can’t vote straight, ev­ery Elec­tion Day yield­ing fresh em­bar­rass­ments. Ge­or­gia’s re­cent pri­mary, for in­stance, was a night­mare of closed polling places, bro­ken ma­chines and long lines, prompt­ing one ob­server to dub it “a hot, flam­ing f——— mess.” Ken­tucky was never covered by the act, but per­haps should have been based on its re­cent pri­mary. The state closed al­most all of its nearly 3,700 polling places, leav­ing vot­ers with just 170, sup­pos­edly be­cause of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. Louisville, a city of 620,000 peo­ple, nearly one in four of them Black, had just one polling place. Enough.

This sort of thing is in­com­pat­i­ble with rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy. It gives the lie to ev­ery­thing Amer­ica claims to be. And it makes clear that restor­ing the Vot­ing Rights Act will not be enough. It’s time for a new Vot­ing Rights Act, one that in ad­di­tion to its pre­vi­ous pro­tec­tions, also en­shrines the right of vot­ing by mail, re­stores to ex-felons the right to reg­is­ter and vote, re­moves the power to draw dis­trict lines from politi­cians and places it with non­par­ti­san com­mis­sions, in­val­i­dates photo ID laws and re­quires that a rea­son­able num­ber of polling sta­tions and work­ing polling ma­chines be made avail­able.

In a democ­racy that took democ­racy se­ri­ously, none of this would be con­tro­ver­sial. In this democ­racy, the seven years since the Vot­ing Rights Act fell have been met mostly with con­gres­sional si­lence. The Democrats have said lit­tle, the Repub­li­cans less. The GOP’s odds of vic­tory rise as the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Black vot­ers de­clines, so their si­lence makes a cer­tain sense. But Democrats have no ex­cuse.

If the party takes con­trol of Congress in Novem­ber, there will be an un­der­stand­able push to pri­or­i­tize is­sues like po­lice re­form or health care. And these things are crit­i­cal. But noth­ing is more crit­i­cal than pas­sage of a new Vot­ing Rights Act.

Seven years ago, Rep. John Lewis, one of the he­roes of the 1965 cam­paign, sur­veyed the dam­age the court had done and asked plain­tively, “Can his­tory re­peat it­self?” The an­swer is yes. The strug­gle of 55 years ago tells us that’s a rea­son to de­spair.

And para­dox­i­cally, also a rea­son to hope.

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