The Reporter (Vacaville)

Biden is right: Voting rights still under assault

- Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobi­nson@

Fifty-eight years after passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, the fight for equal access to the ballot box goes on. Exercising the right to vote — which President Joe Biden described Sunday as crossing “the threshold of democracy and liberty” — is still more difficult for African Americans than for others, and that fact is a scandal and a disgrace.

Biden was speaking at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where civil rights marchers led by John Lewis were savagely beaten March 7, 1965.

That atrocity spurred Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law later that year. Until his death in 2020, Lewis led an annual commemorat­ive pilgrimage to the bridge. Now it continues without him.

This was not the first time Biden participat­ed in marking the anniversar­y of “Bloody Sunday,” but it was his first time doing so as president. He said that without the right to vote, “nothing is possible,” and he warned that “this fundamenta­l right remains under assault.”

And that is true. In 1965, Southern Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” used the power they held in Alabama and other Southern states to bar African Americans from voting. Today, it is the Republican Party that seeks — and finds — ways to weaken Black political power, not just in the South but elsewhere as well. And it is Republican­s in Congress who have blocked two bills that would partly address this betrayal of the nation's professed democratic ideals.

Before we focus on the GOP's cynicism and hypocrisy, though, let's consider one of the injustices that our political leaders rarely even talk about, let alone address: In every election, it takes longer for Black and Latino voters to cast their ballots at polling places than it takes White voters.

A 2020 report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that in the November 2018 midterm elections, 7% of African American voters and 6.6% of Latino voters waited in line for 30 minutes or longer to vote, while only 4.1% of White voters had to wait that long. The disparity was most pronounced “in the southeaste­rn United States, home to large shares of nonwhite voters,” the report said.

A study of the 2016 election, led by UCLA economist Keith Chen and based on cellphone data, had a similar finding: Voters in predominan­tly Black neighborho­ods were 74% more likely to wait for more than half an hour than those in White neighborho­ods.

It is obvious why this routine inequality is important. Many of our peer democracie­s hold their elections on Sundays, when most voters do not have to go to work. We have our elections on Tuesdays, when many people do not have the luxury of time. Some potential voters are not able to wait in long, slow-moving lines and have to give up. Proportion­ally more of these frustrated would-be voters are Black and Latino.

This would be an easy problem to fix, if officials wanted to fix it: Put more poll workers and voting stations in Black and Latino neighborho­ods. Yet it doesn't happen.

Republican­s point the finger at Democratic mayors and city councils, but the distributi­on of election resources — such as early-voting drop boxes, for example — is often controlled by GOP governors, secretarie­s of state and legislatur­es.

Some voting obstacles would be cleared away by the For the People Act. The other bill — the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancemen­t Act — would restore key parts of the original Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court's conservati­ve majority struck down in 2013.

It is true that Black voters have overcome obstacles and voted in historic numbers, standing in line for hours, if necessary, to make their voices heard. But that does not make voter suppressio­n any less unfair or undemocrat­ic. Arguments about “Jim Crow 2.0” are premature when vestiges of “Jim Crow 1.0” remain with us.

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