At the beating heart of the Big Lie—the deranged fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from its loser, Donald Trump—is the Republican belief that the votes of Black people shouldn’t count. In lawsuit after lawsuit after the election, Republicans asked the courts to throw away votes that had been cast in predominantly Black communities. In Michigan, they literally singled out Detroit and threatened to refuse to certify its votes. The GOP’s entire postelection strategy was to reinstitute race-based voter disenfranchisement all the way up to January 6, when 147 Republican lawmakers voted to straight-up overturn the results because Black people had overcome the white supremacy baked into the Electoral College.
While the failed Capitol insurrection has stymied at least some of these efforts, the very serious work of preventing Black people from voting in the future continues apace. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that state legislatures have already prepared three times as many voter restriction bills this year as were proposed during the same period of time last year. The numbers are staggering: “Twenty-eight states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 106 restrictive bills this year (as compared to 35 such bills in fifteen states on February 3, 2020).”
In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Republican-controlled legislature has proposed 14 new restrictions. New Hampshire’s legislature has put forward 10. (They should change their state motto to “Vote Republican or Die.”) Senator Josh Hawley’s home state of Missouri has nine voter suppression bills kicking around, while 11 are on the docket in Georgia, which seems determined to suppress its way back to being a red state after Democrats won the presidential election and two Senate runoffs there.
The new laws cover everything Republicans could think of to make it harder for people to cast a vote. Many of the proposals are laser-focused on absentee ballots: Republicans want to make those harder to get, easier to reject, and impossible to fix. Other laws make it harder for people to register to vote. Still others want to make it easier to purge registered voters from the rolls.
Republicans don’t have to succeed in all of these attempts—and, ultimately, they don’t have to suppress that many additional votes—to throw future elections their way. Despite Joe Biden whupping Trump by over 7 million votes nationwide, his margin of victory in the Electoral College came down to about 43,000 votes across three states. The college is already rigged to produce Republican victories despite the will of popular majorities. If Republicans can make it just a little harder for the multiethnic coalition united against them to vote against them, then the Electoral College will do the rest.
The Republican candidate for president has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections. What’s wild is that the GOP has no plans to address this problem, no strategy to broaden its appeal beyond the insular white racists and wealthy white business interests that represent a stagnant and aging minority of the country. There will be no reckoning, no autopsy, no self-reflection about what their party has become. For them, it’s voter suppression or bust.
The Democrats’ response to the Jim Crow–style policies being unashamedly pushed by Republicans appears to be the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The bill, renamed for the famed Georgia congressman after his death, seeks to restore elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act eviscerated by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2013 and add additional protections against discriminatory voter ID laws.
The problem, somewhat obviously, is that the Supreme Court could strike down this voting rights act just as easily as it did the original. There’s no guarantee that Roberts will view Congress’s new law more favorably—and even if he does, the court today is very different from it was in 2013. To withstand a legal challenge, the Lewis Act would have to be upheld by Roberts, the three remaining liberals on the court, and at least one member of the ultraconservative wing: Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett, or alleged attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh. None of these conservatives have ever shown the slightest inclination to protect voting rights, and I’m not particularly hopeful they’ll start now.
But the rot goes deeper than that. Conservatives on the lower courts are in on the voter suppression game as well, since they also realize that denying the franchise to Black voters is the best way to ensure continued white dominance. Historically, white people have always been creative when it comes to dreaming up new ways to disenfranchise Black people—never mind the 15th Amendment’s prohibition on race-based voter restrictions—and white courts have always been willing to look the other way. Whether it’s forcing Black voters to count jelly beans in a jar or insisting that formerly incarcerated people pay fines before they’re allowed to vote again, the forces of white supremacy always find their muse when Black people try to exercise political power.
No legislation can anticipate all of their maneuvers. As currently written, the Lewis Act doesn’t have strong protections for mail-in ballots, because such ballots weren’t a big issue until a few months ago. This means the act is already outmoded, and while I’m sure it will be rewritten and strengthened, it does go to show that, when it comes to voter suppression, Republicans practice the kind of racism that never sleeps.
That’s why it’s critical to have judges who will uphold the principle of voting rights, even in new situations. The problem is that Republicans have stacked the courts with conservatives who clearly won’t. Don’t be fooled by the judiciary’s resistance to the Big Lie: Asking judges to throw out votes that have already been cast, as the Republicans did, is different from asking them to make it harder for votes to be cast in the first place. As we saw in the last election, conservative judges were perfectly happy to knock down laws that would have made it easier and safer for people to vote during a pandemic.
The most important thing Democrats can do now to secure voting rights is to expand the courts and flood them with judges who will fiercely protect access to the ballot box. We need judges who will counteract whatever the Republicans do next to disenfranchise Black folks.
Voter suppression is an attack on our democracy that is happening right now, in broad daylight, and it’s being carried out by the same forces of white supremacy that stormed the Capitol. And like the Capitol insurrectionists, the voter suppressionists must be met and defeated.