John Oliver excoriated the wave of voting restrictions passed by several states since the 2020 elections on Last Week Tonight, as well as the reluctance among prominent Democrats, including Joe Biden, to do anything to protect the right to vote.
Just this year, 18 states have enacted 30 restrictive laws, including Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona, where Biden’s combined margin of victory was less than 43,000 votes. “If they had gone the other way, Trump would still be president right now,” said Oliver, “which means Covid would be even worse, we’d be at war with, I don’t know, let’s say Luxembourg, and we’d all be living under Attorney General My Pillow Guy. I know things are bleak right now, but depressingly, it’s also important to remember: this is technically the better timeline.”
Oliver dug into barely disguised attacks on voting rights across the US, and how to fight them. Though Republican lawmakers in states such as Texas have repeatedly denied, or outright shut down discussion of the measures’ disproportionate effect on minority voters, the game is straightforward.
The Texas law, for example, gets rids of 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting – both implemented by Harris county, which contains parts of Houston, to help elections adapt to the pandemic; 56% of Harris county voters who used 24-hour voting were people of color, 53% for drive-thru voting. “It’s pretty obvious who is being targeted there,” said Oliver. “They may as well say, ‘You can’t arrive at a polling place exhibiting a face in the Fenty 300s or higher.’ Sure, you’re not saying people of color, but we all know what the fuck is happening.”
Texas and several other states including Georgia and Florida have also added new restrictions to voting by mail, “coincidentally, just a year after the percentage of black people who voted by mail surged past white voters”, said Oliver. States have enacted harsher voter ID restriction, despite court cases and studies finding that people of color have disproportionately lacked access to the type of photo IDs required.
“So when you do ‘read these bills’,” as Republican lawmakers repeatedly urge, “you quickly find some shit in plain view,” said Oliver. “It’s like a second grader playing hide and seek – you’re bigger than the coffee table, bud.
“None of this is anything new – Republicans have been pushing restrictive voting laws for years,” he continued. In 2013, the supreme court struck down a formula at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that required certain states with a history of discrimination to have changes cleared by the federal government. The effective gutting of the measure has allowed many restrictions targeting minority voters to stand.
Still, new voting restrictions technically need a reason to be passed, and “for years, [Republicans] claimed there was an epidemic of voter fraud, despite the fact that actual instances of that are incredibly rare,” Oliver explained. “So they have now shifted their justification from something measurable – what people are doing – to something much less tangible: what they are feeling.”
Case in point: Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, explained that the state’s voting restrictions were needed because “Americans no longer trust the system, and a country where voters do not trust the system is a country in peril”.
“OK, but you still need a reason to legislate against something,” Oliver retorted. “You can’t just do it based on a feeling.”
Even local election boards have disputed the new measures as frivolous if not outright dangerous. “It’s stupid, OK? … It was a solution looking for a problem,” according to one Republican member of the Florida supervisors of elections, who strongly opposed their state’s bill.
“It’s actually one step worse than that,” Oliver added, “because these are solutions to problems that have been deliberately and strategically manufactured. And the game is pretty obvious here: use bullshit claims to stir up baseless fear to pass unnecessary restrictions targeting particular groups.”
There are some corrective and protective measures working through Congress: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore parts of the original Voting Rights Act, and the Freedom to Vote Act would, among other things, make voting by mail available to every voter, make election day a public holiday, and make automatic voter registration a national standard. But the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already announced that he would filibuster against either measure, “so if we want to protect the ballot, which we absolutely should, we need to end the filibuster,” said Oliver.
Some moderate Democrats in power, including Biden and West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, oppose removing the filibuster; at a CNN town hall, Biden argues that preserving the filibuster was more important than removing it for voting rights, since “you can’t stop the American people from voting”.
Oliver disputed this as groundless optimism: “The solution to voter suppression cannot be to ‘just vote’, the same way that the solution to being locked out of your home can’t be to tell someone, ‘Just go inside and get the keys.’”
“All of this is to say to Joes Biden, Manchin and any other Joe who wants to skip doing anything significant and instead rely on the perseverance of the American spirit: stop fucking around and fix this,” he concluded.