The Washington Post
Biden is right. Voting rights remain under assault.
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 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 on 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 percent of African American voters and 6.6 percent of Latino voters waited in line for 30 minutes or longer to vote, while only 4.1 percent 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 percent 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. State governments where Democrats have recently won control, such as Minnesota and Michigan, by contrast, are moving forward with plans to eliminate disparities and expand voting access.
Some voting obstacles would be cleared away by the For the People Act, one of the two major pieces of electionreform legislation that Democrats tried, and failed, to pass in the last Congress when they controlled both the House and the Senate. 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.
Before that ruling, states with a history of racial discrimination in voting — basically, states across the South — had to submit all proposed changes in election rules for federal review before they could be implemented. If the changes were found to have disparate and prejudicial impact on minorities, they could be disallowed.
As soon as that Supreme Court decision came down, Gop-led states rushed to implement voter-id laws, gerrymander districts to dilute Black voting power, purge voter rolls and take other actions they knew would disproportionately burden African Americans and other minorities.
It is true that Black voters have overcome these 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.