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Gilda R. Daniels is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, litigation director at Advancement Project, and a former deputy chief in the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Voting Section.
A high level of voter engagement during the last election, spurred by the ability to vote early or via absentee mail-in ballots and drop boxes, has renewed GOP efforts to ensure that only certain people have access to the ballot box. Dozens of states with Republican legislatures are using the disingenuous concerns of “voter fraud” and “ballot security” to consider restricting the voting methods that helped millions of voters cast ballots during the pandemic.
One of the most egregious examples can be found in Georgia, where people stood in line for more than six hours during early voting in the fall. Last month, that state’s legislature made it a crime to provide water or food to people standing in line, while simultaneously passing legislation that will make for longer lines by limiting mail-in voting, early voting and other options. When the ability to distribute water and food to those standing in an hours-long line is criminalized, it is clear that the goal of the legislation is not to address voting irregularities but to suppress voting.
We have seen this before. When people of color participate at high levels, those who lose power develop new disenfranchisement strategies to prevent widespread voter turnout — compromising voting infrastructure, restricting mail-in ballots, closing polling sites, eliminating drop boxes, dismantling the USPS and allowing pervasive voter intimidation.
All of these anti-democracy mechanisms can be eliminated, however, if the full power of the Voting Rights Act is in place, and the people are engaged and holding elected officials accountable.
It is the Voting Rights Act and its key provisions that ensure protection against efforts to prevent fair access to voting. This progressive legislation has been under attack from its inception and is now the focus of a case before the Supreme Court, which could strip what remains of the act and return us to a compromised form of democracy where the tools to combat disenfranchisement and discriminatory voting laws are unavailable. If this happens, states will have even more latitude to pass unnecessary and discriminatory laws.
More tools are needed to make this a fair fight.
First and foremost, voters must demand the passage of House Resolution 1 and House Resolution 4, and Congress must listen. Enactment of these vital pieces of legislation will restore what the U.S. Supreme Court has already taken away from the Voting Rights Act to weaken it, and provide uniformity in voter registration and balloting procedures.
Second, voters must demand that their state legislatures allow for expanded means of voting that will prevent long lines and voter intimidation.
Lastly, voters must turn out for all elections and remain vigilant to changes that impact not just the ability to vote, but education, criminal justice, climate change and all other areas where a chorus of voices is needed to raise awareness and ensure representation. Continuing to vote for responsible leaders will protect the franchise and manifest democracy in its best form.
To be sure, the struggle for the soul of this democracy and the free, fair and nondiscriminatory access to the ballot is a battle worth fighting. In a democracy, the vote and the ability of eligible persons to exercise the right to vote is central to a legitimate form of government.