Black History Month 2021 arrived just in time to cap a year in which white Americans’ eyes have been opened in a new way to the burdens endured by communities of color. In the year since the pandemic broke into the open, a particularly harsh spotlight has shone on race in America, shattering the false confidence that allegations of systemic racism were overly aggressive or just plain overblown.
We have watched Black and brown Americans steer America through that pandemic — the health care, food and postal workers and many others on whom we have depended — even as those same Americans were infected and died at rates dramatically higher than their white counterparts. We saw, finally and inexplicably for the first time, the vulnerability to police violence that has long been a simple fact of life for nonwhite people, driven home at last for the rest of us in graphic, irrefutable fashion by the murder of George Floyd. In November and then again in January, we saw voters of color ignore or face down onerous obstacles to voting that, in many instances, existed precisely to exclude them. Some of those obstacles were pandemic-related, but others were placed there purposefully by politicians who were not only not interested in having Black and brown Americans vote but who, to the contrary, were affirmatively interested in having them not vote.
For those who tended to think that the term “voter suppression” was too extreme or too obscure, the 2020 election wasn’t a wake-up call as much as it was a wake-up siren. We can mince words if we like, but Democrats want Black and brown Americans to vote; Republicans, not so much.
Republican enthusiasm for high voter turnout among communities of color, always dim, got considerably dimmer last Nov. 3, when those communities braved rain and snow to vote in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee, lifting Joe Biden to a narrow victory over Donald Trump.
So it is no wonder that those who ardently wish to prevent a recurrence are hard at work. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, since the beginning of this year 106 bills aimed at preventing Americans from voting have been introduced in 28 state legislatures across the country. These include measures to limit or terminate mail-in voting, shorten or eliminate early voting periods and impede voter registration. Others stiffen photo ID requirements, including actually requiring American citizens to present two forms of government-issued ID as a condition of choosing their leaders. An estimated 25 million eligible American voters lack one such ID, let alone two. They have no passports and, because they have no cars, are too old to drive or are disabled, do not have driver’s licenses.
Voting rights advocates are not exactly ceding ground. The Brennan Center calculates that thus far in 2021, some 406 bills have been filed in 35 states seeking to expand mail-in voting, preserve or extend early voting and institute automatic voter registration for eligible citizens signing up with social service agencies or motor vehicle bureaus. A broad fight is underway in Congress, where Democratic control of the Senate may make it possible to break the chokehold on ballot access once and for all. The For the People Act, passed by the House last year but suffocated in the Senate, was reintroduced in early January. It would federalize virtually all of the provisions in the voting rights legislation pending in state legislatures. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would revitalize key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gutted by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority during the Obama administration.
It is hard to imagine a more fitting or more overdue response to the suppression of votes in communities of color than a determined, comprehensive codification of voting rights measures both in the states and in Congress. Those bent on keeping those communities from fully participating in American elections will not go quietly. The rest of us shouldn’t either.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.