I am writing to you today with a dollop more optimism about the future of our democracy than I’ve had to date.
Why? Because I listened to a talk by Marc Elias, the indefatigable voting rights attorney who knocked down so many Big Lie lawsuits in the courts during 2020, describing efforts to block/overturn the vote suppression laws springing up in so many places.
He and his colleagues are continuing their good works against the latest onslaught.
Then I watched Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department has issued some confusing decisions lately, make a full-throated commitment to do the same—and more.
Elias noted that voting rights—now—provides the “defining moment,” the issue by which our children and grandchildren will judge us in the coming years: Did we protect democracy in this crucial time?
It’s going to take the work of a lot of people, he pointed out. One of the most egregious assaults currently is the “outrageous violence toward election officials.”
Elias stressed that part of the success of the safe, well-run, corruption-free 2020 elections was due to the enormous number of election workers who signed on to make up for the mostly elderly people who usually serve but couldn’t during the pandemic.
He termed the rash of “Trump-inspired efforts to terrorize election workers…another manifestation of the Big Lie.”
To combat this criminality, Elias called for federal legislation that officially regards intimidation of election officials as a Federal crime.
But there is also good news. Elias said we should celebrate Nevada, where the government just established permanent mail-in voting, moving the state’s election law from very good to “exemplary.”
And in Vermont, the Democratic state legislature passed universal mail-in voting, and Republican Governor Phil Scott signed the expansion into law.
Elias pointed out that the Biden administration now has three of the top five voting rights advocates anywhere. He didn’t name them, but I’m sure he was referring to Lisa Monaco, US Deputy Attorney General; Vanita Gupta, US Associate Attorney General; and the newly confirmed Kristen Clarke, US Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
He also praised Vice President Harris’s Senate leadership on this issue, which she’s been tasked with overseeing.
The Elias talk was a good introduction to Merrick Garland’s speech, which was as strong as I’d hoped: part history, part personal commitment, part action plan.
The detailed history included a candid description of the advances and reversals of voting rights for Black Americans and other people of color since the Reconstruction.
“Progress…has never been steady,” Garland stated, and it “has always required vigilant enforcement by Congress, the Courts, and the Justice Department.”
“There are many things that are open to debate in America, but the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, and the right from which all other rights ultimately flow.”
He quoted Presidents Johnson, Reagan, and Bush, who unequivocally stated the importance of the right to vote. Reagan actually called it “the crown jewel of American liberties” and said “we will not see its luster diminished.”
Garland emphatically refuted all allegations of fraud in the 2020 election.
“The Justice Department will of course do everything to prevent election fraud and to vigorously prosecute it…but many of the changes are not even calibrated to address the kinds of voter fraud that are alleged.”
He harkened back to 1961, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy called Assistant AG for Civil Rights Burke Marshall into his office. This was before the 1965 Voting Rights Act implemented a pre-clearance requirement for states with a record of discrimination. The Roberts Supreme Court voided these crucial protections as unnecessary in 2013, reopening the doors to discriminatory practices. (The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, S.4, is designed to reinstate these safeguards.)
Marshall had told Kennedy that the only way to guarantee the right of Black Americans to vote was to bring individual actions in each county where discrimination was occurring. “And if you want to do that, you’ve got to have a lot more lawyers.”
This was Garland’s most important point:
“Well, today we are again without a pre-clearance provision, so again, the Civil Rights Division will need more lawyers. Accordingly, today I am announcing that within the next 30 days we will double the Division’s enforcement for protecting the right to vote.
“We will use all existing provisions in the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act and the Uniform and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to ensure that we protect every qualified American seeking to participate in our Democracy.
He delineated an ambitious agenda to enhance voting rights and reduce interference, addressing audits (think Arizona, where a federal lawsuit seems likely), early voting, expanded registration, redistricting (gerrymandering), and prosecuting violent threats against election workers.
His department will work with Congress and hopes they’ll pass legislation including the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, Garland said, “but we will not wait for that legislation to act.”
Here’s a link to the speech and transcript:
Many of us have been preoccupied with Senator Joe Manchin’s outsized power in preventing passage of anything, but perhaps most importantly S.1, the For the People Act—and what that will mean for the 2022 elections.
I am wondering whether, in view of the iffy status of the far-reaching S.1, which it appears Manchin has effectively doomed, a narrow bill that protects both election workers and the tabulation and auditing of vote totals might be something that could squeak through the Senate.
If we can get such protections soon, we can adopt a slightly longer action plan: working hard now to obtain a larger Senate Majority and a firmer House margin in 2022.
Assuming we have the right messaging and the Democratic coalition hangs together, we might then be able to pass the bold legislation that President Biden has proposed and a majority of Americans have said they support: the For the People Act, with its dark money restrictions, and both the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan in the scope that President Biden envisions.
Infrastructure with broadband and climate protection, aid to families, immigration and police reform would all be possible; we could truly address our nation’s long neglected problems and inequities.
At the end of the Elias talk, a woman asked if it still makes sense to call her Senators every day to urge them to protect voting rights. Elias encouraged this action—do so even if your Senators support the bills.
The opposition is making a lot of noise, he said, and Senators need to hear from those of us who feel strongly about this seminal issue.
Now I must go write some post cards reminding people to sign up to vote by mail, my own effort to exert a small measure of control over events. Buoyed by Melanie Stansbury’s significant win in her New Mexico Congressional race, where a big post card campaign received some credit, I’m even more committed to this fairly tedious work.
As always, I’m eager to hear your thoughts.
Image found via unsplash.com.