For many politically active Americans, the beginning of 2021 offered hope that a new U.S. presidential administration, in control of both houses of congress, could put ridiculous claims of election illegitimacy behind them. Unfortunately, however, before President Biden even got into office, the transition was marred by an attempted assault on the Capitol by various right-wing extremist groups seeking to overturn the election results. This widely publicized event shocked the world and has been recapitulated and dissected countless times in media think-pieces concerned with the aesthetic forms of power and their momentary lapse during January 6th.
These militants, on January 6th, from veterans to social media stars, failed quite spectacularly in their assault on American democracy. Unfortunately, however, the Republican party is, without provoking any similar condemnation or backlash, mounting a far more pernicious and potentially devastating attack on American democracy in the form of restrictive voting rights bills.
From Texas to Georgia, Republican lawmakers either have passed or are in the process of passing bills that disenfranchise large swathes of their states’ urban and nonwhite populations. In a country with shifting demographics and public opinion, including traditionally conservative areas, these party apparatuses seek to entrench their power through minority rule. The changes are a serious assault on the rights of the majority of Americans and deserve the condemnation of American Democrats and the international community.
The phenomenon started almost as soon as Biden took office, with hundreds of bills filed within seven weeks. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the total number of disenfranchisement bills now sits at nearly 400. The number of enacted bills sits at 22, yet more laws are moving through legislatures in 18 more states, either in committee or in debate. While legislation is generally delayed due to the arduous process and regulations involved in enacting and implementing it, some states, such as Georgia, are already using these laws to change voting procedures to benefit state and federal republicans.
Bill SB 202, the Georgian bill used to suppress voters, is not a partisan piece of law. It does not refer to any party, and theoretically, Democrats, if they ever got into power in Georgia, could use it to disenfranchise Republican voters. However, since Republicans are currently in control, the bill effectively consolidated their power, making a Democratic (or even democratic) state administration an ever-narrowing possibility.
Fifty-two pertinent provisions in the bill directly affect the Georgian voter’s experience, and running through the mundanities of voting legislation is not particularly illuminating. Still, it is necessary to mention some of the most egregious regulations. For example, it is now illegal to either give food or water to a voter in line or receive it as a voter in Georgia. In addition, it is a felony to mark someone else’s absentee ballot at home. Misdemeanours now include taking a picture of your ballot, handling someone else’s vote, and even allowing someone else to see you marking your absentee ballot. Georgia has created a hotline to report election crimes to enforce this far-reaching and invasive legislation, allowing the state attorney general to begin prosecution within three days. These changes are explicit intimidation of Democratic voters in a state with a Republican attorney general.
In addition to individual election regulation, SB 202 allows the state to take over county election boards on three state regulation violations or determine it not to comply for some other reason. The bill has also given Republicans control over four of the five seats on the state board of elections, meaning that they can, with relatively little oversight or resistance, take over county election boards and appoint new administrators unilaterally. These county boards have the direct power to disenfranchise voters. The process is currently happening in Fulton county, which could allow the Republican party to disenfranchise Atlanta.
What’s more, SB 202 allows anybody to challenge the rights of an unlimited number of voters to vote without proof or reason. In a state with a GOP-dominated judiciary and state government, these challenges could be used to further disenfranchise those in jurisdictions without severe enough gerrymandering or compliance with Republican administrative principles.
Were this just an issue in one American state, it would be concerning. However, given the staggering number of bills that have been or may be passed, this is a sincerely frightening and seemingly compelling assault on democracy. Moreover, since states control federal election policies and their local elections, this legislation and other bills will affect the rest of the nation. Furthermore, it will ensure that an already undemocratic electoral college is weighted towards Republican states and that swing states end up voting Republican every election.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Georgia, which voted for President Biden in the 2020 election. The win came as a shock to the federal and state Republican parties and much of the nation. As a result, President Trump attempted to pressure the Georgia Secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, into finding more votes for him in the state. Raffensperger refused this blatant attempt to subvert democracy but drew the ire of the state party.
The measures in Georgia, which allow Republicans to appoint members of the board of elections, seem to have stemmed directly from this incident. The Secretary of State was previously automatically a member of this board. If the goal of the state legislature were to get Republicans on the board, there would have been no need to exclude that position from the board. However, this seems not to have been the only goal. Because Raffensperger stood up for democratic principles and refused the pressure from President Trump to manufacture votes, his power was limited and his role in elections removed.
This suppression is incredibly disturbing, and Georgia is not alone in its anti-democratic wave. For example, Texas, the third-largest state by population and electoral votes, is currently passing a similar bill. And because Republicans tend to dominate local governments, even in heavily democratic states (the New York state senate was Republican until recently), this legal regime may be enacted far beyond the traditional Republican heartland.
Bill SB 202 is not a frontal ban on democratic institutions. It is not an abolition of democracy, and the regulations and administrative changes it made are not flashy. But that is precisely why it is so dangerous and seemingly effective. Suppose more of these bills are allowed to pass, and some almost certainly will. In that case, they are harming most Americans who are not ideologically committed to the Republican project.
While the current wave of anti-democratic legislation is not a reenacting of Jim Crow per se, it is a step on the road to it. The content and utilization of these bills indicate that the intent behind Republican policy is the entrenchment of minority rule and systematic disenfranchisement of minority, urban, and simply non-Republican voters. And they must not go unnoticed.
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