Threats to US voting rights have grown – what's different about this moment?

Over the last few months, there’s been ‘no attempt to pretend that the intention is not to restrict votes’, says Stacey Abrams

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Happy Thursday,

Since I joined the Guardian in 2019 to focus on voting rights, the topic has exploded and moved to the center of the American politics. After focusing on these threats in connection to the 2020 race, this week we launched the next phase of how we’re going to cover these threats, which only have grown since November.

Yesterday, we published a story that explains why American democracy is facing a uniquely perilous moment. This story lays out what I think are the most urgent threats: aggressive measures to curtail the right to vote in state legislatures, a supreme court uninterested in defending voting rights, and extreme partisan gerrymandering, expected to take place later this year. These are going to be the pillars of Guardian US’s coverage over the next year.

For this piece, I asked many people the same question: what specifically is different about this moment from what we’ve seen in the past? There’s been growing awareness of voter suppression in recent years, but over the last few months, something has changed.

I posed this question to Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has helped make voter suppression a national conversation. She said that the last 15 years had seen a “slow boil” of voter suppression that was difficult to see if you weren’t closely tracking it. What’s happening now, she said, was something different.

“What is so notable about this moment, and so disconcerting, is that they are not hiding. There is no attempt to pretend that the intention is not to restrict votes,” she said. (You can read our full conversation here.)

I also spoke with LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, who has spent decades organizing voters in the south, about what it’s like to see such aggressive restrictions after an election that saw record turnout. She pointed out that the US has a long history of suppressing Black voters when they increase their political participation.

“We’re in this hamster wheel of doing the work to register to vote. People exercise their vote, particularly Black voters, and then they’re punished for exercising that vote,” she told me.

As alarming as things are now, they could be about to get a lot worse. Later this year, lawmakers across the country will begin the process of redrawing electoral districts, something the constitution mandates must happen once every 10 years. While both parties have manipulated this process for political gain, it has gotten out of control in recent years. Advances in technology and sophisticated data allow lawmakers to carefully carve up districts in such a way that they can virtually guarantee re-election.

A decade ago, Republicans deployed this process to their extreme advantage, and they are well positioned to control the process again this year. They’ll have even fewer guardrails holding them back from maximizing their partisan advantage when drawing districts – the supreme court said in 2019 that federal courts could do nothing to stop the process. Lawmakers in places with a history of voting discrimination also no longer have to get their maps reviewed for racial discrimination before they go into effect.

“Last decade Republicans tried to pack Black voters into districts in the south and claim that they were trying to do it because of the [Voting Rights Act]. Now there’s an open route for [Republicans] to say, ‘Well, we’re putting Black voters into districts because they’re Democrats.’ And the supreme court has said that’s OK,” Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center, told me.

Democrats have placed a lot of effort into fixing these problems in a sweeping voting rights bill under consideration in Washington. The measure would require independent commissions to draw districts and require early voting as well as automatic and same-day registration, among other things. The Senate held its first hearing on the bill on Wednesday and Republicans are digging in their heels, hard. Passing the bill will probably depend on whether Democrats can get rid of the filibuster, a procedural rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation.

Also worth watching

  • The US slipped, again, in a global ranking of political freedoms, putting it on par with Panama, Romania and Croatia, and Mongolia. Over the last decade, the US has fallen 11 points, from 94 to 83, on the 100-point scale Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, uses to rank political freedoms. “Dropping 11 points is unusual, especially for an established democracy, because they tend to be more stable in our scores,” Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s vice-president for research and analysis, told me. “Americans should see it as a wake-up call.”


Sam Levine in New York

The GuardianTramp

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