Dzieduszycka-Suinat is the president of the U.S. Vote Foundation, a nonprofit that works to ensure that all citizens become voters.
Outrage over the new Georgia law is warranted. It's an overt suppression scheme — aimed at Black voters, specifically, and overall turnout, generally. But before we give much more oxygen to the measure's red herring, criminalizing distribution of food and water to people in long lines at the polls, let's highlight its dangerous core: allowing elected officials to manipulate election outcomes.
An authoritarian handbook couldn't have delivered a more effective strategy.
Under the law, ostensibly enacted in response to a "significant lack of confidence in Georgia election systems," the secretary of state is no longer chair of the State Election Board; that statewide elected official will be replaced by a "chairperson elected by the General Assembly." The board issues regulations governing elections, investigates fraud allegations and — significantly — it sets the rules on "what constitutes a vote and what will be counted as a vote."
Courtesy U.S. Vote Foundation
The Republican-majority legislature was no doubt inspired to write this section by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's failure to reconsider the 2020 presidential election's outcome — despite intense pressure to do so from a fellow Republican, the defeated President Donald Trump.
But there's more. Going forward, the state board may "suspend county or municipal superintendents" and appoint new people to temporarily act in their places.
Counties in Georgia, as in most states, hold great power; they register voters, maintain voter lists, conduct all of the ballot casting and then certify elections. Appoint someone who is too biased to take charge of a county election office, and suddenly the fox is guarding the hen house. Registration purges become heavy-handed, applications are put "on hold," recounts take place on shaky ground. And all these actions affect outcomes, potentially shifting the result of a close race.
Supporters of Georgia's new statute may say: "Look, don't worry, because the law restricts the state board from suspending any more than four county supervisors." But in the last election, seven of the 10 counties that swung the most heavily toward the Democrats in the entire country (compared with 2016) were in metro Atlanta. And President Biden carried five of them on his way to turning the state blue on the national map for the first time since 1992.
So, permission to control the elections in a majority of the state's pivotal counties means the GOP-dominated board will be close to controlling the whole election. The choice of four counties was no accident.
Indeed, no provision in the Georgia law looks to be more harmful to Black voters, and their historic 2020 turnout, or more fatal to democracy's survival.
Voter suppression in Georgia already relies on a bevy of tools to shape outcomes before they occur: strict ID laws, voter registration purges, shuttered polling places, partisan gerrymandering and unrestricted campaign contributions, to name only the most prominent.
If those tactics fail and the results in the ballot boxes still don't favor the suppressors — in Georgia or anywhere else — they have some back-end solutions, too: baseless lawsuits challenging the outcomes, calls from the powerful pressuring for "do-overs" and, as of Jan. 6, even a violent insurrection in the very seat of government.
After the last election, the evidence-free lawsuits didn't work, the calls for outcome flips went unheeded and the Capitol remained intact. So, when all else failed, it was time for the losers to start rewriting the rules.
This latest tactic is especially powerful. Whereas strict ID requirements — and other blatantly racist measures — often backfire by driving record numbers to the polls, some other laws force voters to question whether the process itself is legitimate and so whether they should bother participating.
Why show up when the system is stacked against you? When your ballot could get tossed on a political whim? Cultivating that skepticism and subsequent apathy is exactly what Georgian lawmakers had in mind. A citizen who feels powerless is a non-voter. And that's the most effective way to suppress the vote.
Tactics like this are used the world over. Like the Georgia lawmakers asserting "election integrity" concerns as their motive, military commanders in Myanmar asserted "voter fraud" as their justification in February for overturning an election and taking power.
To be sure, that democracy was relatively fresh and the people had already lived through military rule. But when there are breakdowns like the one in Georgia — when parts of the country become "laboratories of authoritarianism" rather than experiments in democracy — they potentially create a domino effect across the land.
Our centuries-old form of government will not necessarily die in one fell swoop. Its demise, like going broke, could happen slowly, slowly, then all at once.
But we can avoid a dangerous trajectory by passing a strong counter-measure: legislation to revive the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which for almost half a century helped protect Black voters and other minority citizens from discriminatory election laws. A bill in Congress would update the system, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 as unconstitutionally outdated, requiring places with discriminatory voting rules to get federal permission before altering any election regulations.
Enacting the measure would mean states and counties would be judged not by their historic sins but by their current actions and intentions. Some states have shown they need the help.
Federal legislative fixes are essential, but they won't solve the problem alone. Lawmakers must be reminded that tables turn, and manipulative rules like those now on the books in Georgia can come back to haunt them.
And when that happens, parties don't just implode. Democracy as a whole self-combusts.
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- Georgia's SB 202 voting law really is that bad - Vox ›
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- Georgia's Election Law, and Why Turnout Isn't Easy to Turn Off - The ... ›
Almost eight years after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Virginia has become the first Southern state to restore protections for minority voters.
The landmark bill, championed by Democrats in the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday, aims to prevent the implementation of discriminatory voting standards.
The victory for voting rights advocates starkly contrasts the nationwide efforts by Republican lawmakers to roll back access to the ballot box, disproportionately impacting non-white, poor, elderly and disabled voters. So far this year more than 250 restrictive bills had been introduced in nearly every state.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that nine mostly Southern states with a history of racial discrimination no longer needed federal "preclearance" for laws that could affect minority voters. This led to lawmakers in those states passing a wave of voting restrictions, including voter ID requirements, voter roll purges and the closure of nearly 1,700 polling locations.
As one of the nine states, Virginia was known for its strict voting rules. But since Democrats took complete control of the state government after the 2019 elections, officials have made changes to bolster accessibility and expand the franchise to voters with past felony convictions.
The old federal preclearance process required states to get federal approval for changes to voting rules. Virginia's voting rights measure requires local election officials to get public feedback or permission from the state's attorney general (currently Democrat Mark Herring) before changing any rules. Virginians or the attorney general would be able to sue if they believed such changes discriminate against voters based on their race, color or membership in a language minority group. Proceeds from potential litigation will go toward voter education funds.
Under the new voting rights act, local election officials will be required to provide voting materials in multiple languages if their jurisdiction has a substantial population of people whose primary language is not English. The measure will also prohibit at-large municipal elections if they are found to dilute the voting power of racial minorities.
"At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it," Northam said in a statement. "With the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, our Commonwealth is creating a model for how states can provide comprehensive voter protections that strengthen democracy and the integrity of our elections."
Both chambers of the General Assembly both passed the bill along party lines last month. Republicans opposed the legislation because they said the potential litigation of election changes would be costly and the extra workload would be burdensome for local election officials.
But Democratic proponents of the bill say the protections it provides are needed now more than ever, as the country sees another wave of restrictive bills in the wake of the 2020 election.
"Virginia is standing strong against a coordinated and intentional effort to restrict voting rights across the nation," said state Del. Marcia "Cia" Price, one of the lead sponsors of the bill. "These targeted restrictions are designed to disenfranchise people of color, working Americans, and non-native English speakers. With this bill, our Commonwealth is taking the opposite approach and we are making a bold statement against voter suppression. We are upholding the dignity, voice and vote of all Virginians."
In announcing his approval of the legislation, Northam urged Congress to follow Virginia's example.
There have been recent efforts at the federal level to restore the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down almost a decade ago. But new legislation — named after the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a prominent voting and civil rights leader — has not yet been introduced in this Congress. And if it is, the bill would stand little chance of passing through the 50-50 Senate with the filibuster intact.
- Virginia passes voting reforms, punts on popular vote compact - The ... ›
- Virginia set to repeal voter ID requirement - The Fulcrum ›
- Voting rights advocates hail victories in Virginia, Nevada - The Fulcrum ›
- Virginia Gov. Northam restores voting rights to felons - The Fulcrum ›
- States see fresh wave of bills to curb voting rights - The Fulcrum ›
This is the eighth installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, FairVote President and CEO Rob Richie answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization advocates for more equitable election methods and in recent years has led the fight for ranked-choice voting. Richie's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
As the long-time national leader on ranked-choice voting, it was remarkable for FairVote to experience its magnificent progress nationwide — with those gains often led by state leaders, but rooted in our analysis and direct support as needed. The movement's victories and momentum included the ballot measure win in Alaska to use RCV for all general elections, the historic use of RCV in five Democratic presidential primaries and three Republican state conventions, six city ballot measure wins, and at least 17 editorial-board endorsements.
Of course, nothing could quite top reaching the final of The Fulcrum's Democracy Madness!
And your biggest setback?
Ranked-choice voting lost on the ballot in Massachusetts. It feels different to win 45 percent of the vote rather than the 52 percent in the 2016 victory in Maine. But there was remarkable hope in that result, nevertheless: 80 percent of Massachusetts voters under 30 backed RCV. Even in this temporary setback, you can see the future coming.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
We need RCV to solve real problems we face today. More than 3.3 million presidential primary votes this year were "wasted" — they were cast for candidates who dropped out before election day. If we're going to expand early voting, we also need to protect voters with RCV.
We also know ranked-choice voting can win on the ballot — it's won 13 of 14 times in the past five years, including in two states. But ballot measures need good targeting and timing — and more broadly, can often be avoided. As more lawmakers learn RCV can be a win-win solution to problems in our politics, we expect a rapid uptick in legislative victories.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
We're excited to be in Year One of a new strategic plan that is governed by a holistic approach to how FairVote and our growing coalition of reform partners can win the Fair Representation Act in Congress and ranked-choice voting across all 50 states in the coming decade. For 2021, that means starting to engage with Congress on changes to advance RCV, expanding the national coalition of groups and thinkers ready to prioritize our reform goals, and supporting the RCV movement around the nation with educational products, media work and funding.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
It's hard to get things passed in Congress no matter who's in charge. That said, we have passionate congressional allies ready to help and we're deeply impressed by the organizing efforts behind legislation like HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We'll engage with those coalitions, while prioritizing bills that advance RCV with bipartisan support.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
Our biggest challenge is what makes our work so compelling: Our elected leaders in Washington are disincentivized from enacting the very reforms that will heal our democracy. The state of our democracy is the single most urgent problem to fix, given its ripple effect across everything else. Because we want ranked-choice voting and ultimately the Fair Representation Act to win across all states, we need political leaders to trust that the fact that one party backed it in one state doesn't mean another party shouldn't back it elsewhere. We'll be transparent and uncompromising in our commitment to working with elected leaders of any party ready to support our reform vision.
The good news is that our elected leaders feel the same concerns for the future of our country — they want to live in a strong democracy where they are rewarded for representing their constituents. And validators from across the political spectrum are stepping up in support of ranked-choice voting in an unparalleled way. But we can't underestimate the gridlock in Washington, even when we see a way out of it.
Finish the sentence. In two years, American democracy will ...
... face deepening partisan rancor and disputes over what fair elections even means — yet more beacons of hope will show the way forward for necessary structural reforms
- FairVote: millions of votes 'wasted' on also-ran candidates - The ... ›
- Momentum builds across country for ranked-choice voting - The ... ›
- Ranked-choice voting can help end polarization - The Fulcrum ›
- As ranked-choice voting gains acceptance, critics push back - The ... ›
Roath is a voting rights attorney who recently ended his term as Common Cause Massachusetts board chairman.
Across the country, democracy is in retreat. By the end of last month, legislatures in 43 states were considering bills that would make it harder to vote — more than 250 of them, or seven times as many as a year earlier. This week, Iowa became the first state since the 2020 election to enact fresh election restrictions, a sweeping package focused mainly on curbing mail-in voting.
While the phenomenon has touched virtually every part of the country, the potential rollback of voting rights is most acute in states where Republicans hold legislative power but President Biden won in November. Lawmakers in these states are leveraging widespread but discredited conspiracy theories about the results of the election to fuel a new wave of race-targeted voter suppression. The Georgia House and Senate, for example, have both passed separate sweeping voter suppression bills that, among other things, target turnout efforts by Black churches. In Arizona, legislators are considering a range of bills that would constrain access to mail-in voting and disenfranchise the most vulnerable.
In short, members of an aggrieved minority are attempting to restrict voter access after an election with results disappointing to them. That is nothing new: Our history is replete with groups attempting to accomplish similar goals, often with success.
Federal legislation would be an obvious and appropriate response, but it is far from clear Congress will take action. Last week the House passed the For the People Act, a comprehensive bill that would impose new nationwide registration and access standards and guarantee same-day registration, among many other objectives. But it is unlikely to pass unless the Senate weakens the filibuster and allows the law to pass with the bare majority that Democrats currently hold.
So, what then?
In the regrettably likely event that Congress is unable to pass sweeping voting rights legislation, advocates and engaged citizens should look to lift up and support the pro-voting-rights efforts taking place right now across the country.
The voting rights progress being achieved in other states — red, blue and purple — amounts to a growing counter-narrative to the concerted disenfranchisement we see playing out in Iowa, Georgia and Arizona.
Three of the brightest spots on the voting rights heat map are Virginia, Kentucky and Massachusetts.
In Richmond any day now, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam will sign a landmark law intended to create a Virginia mirror of the federal Voting Rights Act at the height of its effectiveness.
It replicates many key features of the national law and back-fills many of the provisions that, at the federal level, have been eroded by litigation and Supreme Court decisions. The innovative bill would grant the state's attorney general new authorities to police local elections changes designed to suppress the vote and prohibit local governments from establishing voting systems (such as "at large" elections) that disproportionately exclude minority voters.
Last year, for the first time ever, people in Kentucky could cast their ballots by mail or vote early and in person if they were concerned about contracting the coronavirus at the polls. Unsurprisingly, these reforms were popular and precipitated record turnout in the fall. Rather than rolling back these successful measures, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and the Republicans in charge of the General Assembly appear aligned in favor of extending them indefinitely — which would mean long-term progress on voter access in the South.
Then there's my home state, which is widely perceived as both blue and progressive but has traditionally been a laggard on voting reforms. Apart from emergency measures enacted during the pandemic last year, Massachusetts has no tradition of mail-in voting and has never permitted same-day registration.
But the story here now is much the same as Kentucky's. Thanks to dedicated advocacy and a positive experience with mail-in voting last year, there is widespread consensus that absentee ballots should become an enduring feature of state elections. Democrats in lopsided control on Beacon Hill are considering bills to allow people to register and cast a ballot on the same day along with various other long-sought reforms.
These efforts deserve greater national attention for several reasons.
First, if successful, these reforms would mean that more Americans have more voting options and greater access to democratic institutions. That, in and of itself, is a worthy outcome we should celebrate.
Second, these states can model what meaningful progress on voting rights can look like for the rest of the country. Once successful policies are rolled out, they tend to become popular, and can serve as proof points for advocates in other states. Based on my advocacy experience, it's very persuasive to point out to a lawmaker that 21 other states and the District of Columbia already have same-day registration and then say: "If they can do it, why can't we?" This kind of challenge tends to motivate people.
Finally, issue-based advocacy in the states can set up the playbook for how to effectively push for similar policies in Washington.
There is only so much "model" states can do to counteract voter suppression in other parts of the country. Ultimately, robust federal laws are needed to guard against abuses in a country where your voting rights are vastly different depending on where you live. Action by the states can build momentum for action by Congress — as we've seen in any number of policy areas, from health care access to the criminal code to the minimum wage
So pay attention to what's happening in all the states on voting rights — the good and the bad.
Pushing back against organized voter suppression in one place requires us to push forward in other places. We should be lifting up examples of policymakers, advocates and ordinary citizens who come together to advance the cause of a just, multiracial and well-functioning democracy. They are, in more ways than one, our model citizens.
- Two bills to make the next election fair - The Fulcrum ›
- The 6 toughest states for voting during the pandemic - The Fulcrum ›
- Voter ID laws don't seem to suppress minority votes - The Fulcrum ›