The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set news policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.
Sometimes you just have to ask the right question to gain insight into what’s happening, and that’s what recently elected Sen. Raphael Warnock prompted.
Warnock, who holds the same Atlanta pulpit as did Martin Luther King, when asked how the new Georgia law on voting, SB 202, might affect Democratic U.S. senators’ support for the filibuster, responded with his own query. After glancing momentarily to his side, Sen. Warnock told the reporter, “We will see. But folks keep asking what we will do about the filibuster. I think they ought to ask my colleagues on the other side of the aisle what are they going to do on voting rights.”
Georgia regularly has hours-long lines to vote in communities with many black voters, but SB 202 prohibits giving people water when they’re waiting to vote. It also requires putting ballot drop boxes in places inaccessible outside of office hours and enabling the state to commandeer county election boards.
The state passed its law after elections its Republican governor and secretary of state found to be fair, despite pressure on them from former president Donald Trump. One litigant, Sidney Powell, who asserted that Dominion voting machines were controlled by an insidious foreign entity, now maintains in a legal filing that “no reasonable person” would believe those claims.
Beyond Georgia, Warnock’s question resonates through all of American history — because it relates to fundamental issues of representation. What government does and who it serves depends on who wins elections and that is based in large part on who constitutes the “we the people” who can vote.
Not having control over taxation animated our founders, as expressed in the slogan “No taxation without representation.”
Women at Seneca Falls in 1848 modeled their manifesto on the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Both proclaimed governments were created to secure rights, while “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The “tyranny” identified at Seneca Falls included a lack of voting rights, resulting in compelling women “to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.”
In 1870, formerly enslaved people gained the right to vote through the 15th Amendment, and used it during Reconstruction in the South to elect Black representatives and fund schools. Then they were abandoned by politicians and judges. Jim Crow laws and limits on voting followed, which were ultimately reversed by the 20th century civil rights movement’s direct actions and lawsuits, and by legislation.
That fight for voting rights is deeply rooted in our traditions but the continued effort has been so necessary because there’s another tradition: limiting voting.
That second legacy hasn’t been the province of one party. In the latter part of the 19th century and through the 1950s, Southern Democrats oversaw voter suppression. After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, white Southerners left the Democratic Party. And now Republican office-holders back limits on voting.
This switch in party support for suppressing or expanding the vote reveals why this should be an issue for all us, whatever our political tendencies.
Parties change and sometimes even disappear. Candidates and elected officials come and go. But voting rights are critical to our being a country that includes people speaking up for their values and needs and having those voices heard. Competition for votes should be fair, not skewed so some can’t easily participate in that field of decision and debate.
Congress can stand up for voting rights and a healthy republic by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but a Senate filibuster would prevent the body even voting on it.
What will Maine’s senators do? While believing the filibuster has some benefits, Sen. Angus King recently wrote, “All-out opposition to reasonable voting rights protections cannot be enabled by the filibuster; if forced to choose between a Senate rule and democracy itself, I know where I will come down.” Where Sen. Collins comes down between those two is not known. Mainers should ask her which she chooses.