Now that his expensive vanity project has been thwarted, Mike Bloomberg is free to spend his money helping democracy, instead of trying to destroy it. The former New York City mayor recently announced that he is donating $2 million toward projects aimed at registering 500,000 black voters in key battleground states. That effort follows a $5 million contribution Bloomberg made to Fair Fight, the group headed up by Stacey Abrams that is working to stop voter suppression.
Registering and turning out black voters is essential to any hope of a Democratic victory in November. Unfortunately, Republicans know that too. Republicans have all but given up trying to convince black and brown voters to support them; instead, their strategies are about depressing the turnout in communities of color. Republicans who control statehouses in key battleground states are looking to make it as hard as possible for people to vote.
We saw this happen on Super Tuesday. The story of Hervis Rogers made national news. He waited over six hours, until 1:30 am, to cast his vote at a polling station at Texas Southern University, a historically black college. That’s an outrage in an advanced democracy—but we shouldn’t think it was an accident. The state has closed 750 polling places since 2012.
Closing polling stations outright is but one of the many Republican tricks to stop people from voting. Republican state officials in Ohio have made many attempts to purge voters from its rolls. A similar attempt in Wisconsin has been put on hold by the courts. States, like North Carolina, continually try to pass voter ID laws that directly target African Americans. And even states that aren’t as aggressively purging voters are still finding ways to deny black people the vote.
On Tuesday, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas was turned away from the polls as he tried to vote in the Democratic primary in Missouri. Missouri requires voters to come with some kind of documentation that contains their name and address, but when Lucas presented his utility bill, poll workers couldn’t find him in the system. Apparently, the poll worker tried to search for the mayor as “Lucas Quinton,” mixing up his last name for his first. I imagine that a lot of people think a mix-up like this “could happen to anybody,” but it’s not the kind of thing that happens to a lot of “Chadwick Bankersons” or “Becky Whitegoods” out there.
We used to have laws that tried to prevent states from suppressing or denying the rights of minorities to vote. But in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts eviscerated voter protections in a case called Shelby County v. Holder. Roberts effectively made Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unenforceable, which meant that states with a history of voter suppression no longer had to seek “pre-clearance” from the federal government before changing their voting laws. That’s why states like Texas have been able to close nearly 1,000 polling places; why North Carolina keeps trying to enact draconian voter ID laws; why the mayor of Kansas City needs to bring his utility bill to vote—as if he’s trying to get a damn Discover card. Roberts’s Shelby decision has been the most devastating setback to equal access to the ballot since the Jim Crow laws were erected in the South, yet this enemy of equality still gets treated like some kind of institutionalist and moderate Republican.
Still, while Roberts neutered Section 5, he did leave intact Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits voting procedures that discriminate on the basis of race. In fact, a key Republican argument for why we no longer need Section 5 is that Section 2 still exists.
Unfortunately, Section 2 requires people to bring lawsuits against state governments to stop them from discriminating—and those lawsuits may never come. While President Obama’s administration did bring a few lawsuits against states under Section 2, the Trump administration has brought none. According to a recent Talking Points Memo analysis, the Department of Justice has not brought a single case under the Voting Rights Act since Donald Trump took over. That’s three years, and counting, of the Justice Department failing to enforce the voter protections promised by our laws.
Even Republican administrations under Presidents Bush, both of them, brought voting rights cases. Trump’s refusal to do so is new in modern American law enforcement.
But the problem is actually worse. Aside from not bringing any new cases, Trump’s DOJ has reversed the position of Obama’s DOJ in some high-profile voting rights cases. For instance, Texas won court approval for its controversial voter ID law after Jeff Sessions took control of the Justice Department as attorney general and removed the administration’s objection to the law.
To fill the void left by the DOJ, organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP have filed lawsuits. The NAACP recently won a major case beating back voter suppression in Tennessee. But these groups do not have the power or resources of the Department of Justice. If the federal government refuses to use what power it still has under the Voting Rights Act to prevent voter discrimination, then that is itself an invitation to states to become more aggressive with their efforts to suppress the vote.
What is perhaps most unnerving is that nobody is really surprised by this turn of events. While other Republican administrations have, in fact, tried to enforce the Voting Rights Act, nobody seems to expect the Trump administration to follow the same precedent. We know that the president and his Republican Party don’t really want people of color to vote, and we know that Trump’s attorneys general, Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions before him, have been on the same page as the president and the party. Amid the deluge of news about how Trump has turned the Justice Department into his own personal legal team, the abandonment of the Voting Rights Act barely causes a wave.
But if we are already seeing the effects of the Republican plan to suppress the vote in the Democratic primary, can you imagine how things will look in the general election? Hervis Rogers had to stand in line until the early morning hours to pick one Democrat over another in March. How long will he be forced to wait should he want to choose a Democrat over a Republican in November? People who live in Democratic districts in Texas are going to have to make more preparations to vote in an election than Moses had to do to cross the Sinai desert.
The suppression of black and brown voters is one of the key ways by which Republicans plan to “win” this election. Democrats are going to have to fight that suppression—and fight it without any help from the federal government. Registering voters, defending voters who are registered, and providing those voters with food and water and child entertainment options while they wait in line is as important to the Democratic electoral strategy as any policy proposal or town hall debate.
If Bloomberg wants to spend his money on that, he should be welcomed. But fighting Donald Trump, John Roberts, and any number of Republican governors and state legislatures is going to take a lot more than $2 million.