Voting rights are under siege in the United States.
The right to vote without restriction is an existential citizenship issue for African Americans. Other ethnic national minorities and white progressives agree. However, President Joe Biden's administration has no action plan to stop it.
Following a speech in Philadephia on July 13, where Biden attacked the Republican effort to overturn the will of the voters, he began a national tour to promote an infrastructure deal with Republicans.
This was a slap in the face to civil rights and Black Lives Matter (BLM) leaders and other activists on the ground. Immediately, Black women took the lead in organising protests at the Capitol and Supreme Court to demand that the right to vote be protected. They included Black elected officials and leaders of major civil rights groups.
More than 150 civil rights groups sent a letter to the White House and Congress to defend voting rights by any means necessary.
Acts of civil disobedience have led to many arrests. More are planned until Federal laws protecting the right to vote are passed and enforced.
African Americans treatment stands in sharp contrast to how Trump's backers were treated after the January 6 insurrection. They were allowed to walk out of the Capitol building without handcuffs or even having their names taken by the National Guard and police.
Missing from these direct-action protests so far are allies. All-Black actions are not enough to stop the voter suppression efforts of the right.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended legal segregation in the South, did not only impact Blacks. The movements of Latinos, women, LGBTI people and people with disability use that law to advance their rights.
These allies need to step up and participate at civil disobedience protests, as occurred last year during the marches following the police murder of George Floyd.
Not content to wait for the Biden government, more marches and rallies are planned. They include rallies and marches on August 28, the anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963, led by Martin Luther King Jnr. His son, Martin Luther King III, is one of the organisers.
In an unexpected action, about 50 Texas Democratic state officials took the unusual step of walking out of the House and leaving the state, on July 12, in a second attempt to block the passage of Republican backed voting restrictions.
They travelled to Washington, DC, to push Congress and the Biden government to act. They plan to remain there until the state legislative session closes.
They argue that without federal laws, hard-right Republicans will win elections with a minority of voters. The Texas Democrats fear that Republicans will use unchecked political power on a range of cultural issues that will harm the vast majority of working people.
Many Texas Republican officials openly say their goal is to limit the number of Democratic Party voters, especially urban Black voters. In the 2020 elections, 11 million people voted in Texas. The Republican Secretary of State said only 44 had possibly voted in error. That person has since been removed from office.
The Texas Tribune reported that the Democrats’ flight was intended to break quorum, so that Republicans couldn’t “pass legislation that could ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, among other sweeping restrictions”.
Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott told KVUE that the legislators would be arrested and brought back to the legislative body to get a quorum as soon as they returned to Texas.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, an ongoing fake recount by former president Donald Trump’s allies continues. Trump told a rally in Phoenix, on July 24, that stopping ballot fraud is the top issue for his supporters.
An Associated Press review of the 2020 Arizona ballots showed only 182 had “possible” issues out of three million votes cast. Only four problematic ballots were found — two from Republicans and two from Democrats.
Crisis of the system
The US is undergoing a crisis of bourgeois democracy.
Trump’s “big lie” that he won the 2020 presidential election is believed by 47% of Republicans – who now claim Biden’s presidency is illegitimate.
Republicans see Democrats and those who disagree with Trump as enemies. This enmity was a catalyst for the failed January 6 insurrection.
Trump is also behind the current Republican effort to restrict the right to vote.
Despite claiming to embody democratic ideals, for much of its 245-year history, the US has excluded Black people, Latinos, Asian and First Nations peoples from its “democracy”.
The Constitution of 1787 only applied to white male property owners, and as Blacks did not own property and were not considered citizens, they could not vote. Women and First Nations people were also disqualified.
After the slaveholders lost the American Civil War in 1865, the country was at a crossroads. The US might have built a society based on ideals of equality, but the racist white ruling class did not see Black people as their equals.
The new Congress decided that the new Black “citizens” should not be given equal rights to whites. Society was segregated according to skin colour and non-whites were oppressed. People of colour, used as super exploited labour, were disenfranchised.
Under the principle of “state rights”, the bankers and manufacturers of the North allowed white terrorism to flourish. Brutal and racist “Black code” laws were imposed that made citizenship hollow for former slaves.
A colourblind society was never the goal before, or after the Civil War.
Martin Luther King Jnr expressed the hopes of African Americans, when he said: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Role of the US Supreme Court
The US Supreme Court has played a central role in undermining voting rights. The court is an unelected body of nine justices, appointed by presidents, approved by the Senate, holding lifetime seats.
Historically, the Supreme Court has been a conservative force, used by the ruling class to slow down or reverse any progressive reforms.
The issue of voting rights is no different. Before the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that free Black people could not be citizens.
The Supreme Court uses its authority to interpret the constitution in particular ways that serve ruling class interests, meaning it has been able to protect the rights of property owners and strip away the rights of African Americans.
The “Freedom Amendments” (also known as the First Amendment) were never fully implemented. The 13th Amendment, adopted in 1865 to abolish slavery, still allowed forced labour in prisons — a new form of slavery.
The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1868, said the right to vote applied to all. But, again the Supreme Court deferred its implementation to state governments, rejecting federal oversight as a violation of states’ rights.
The Voting Rights Act was finally passed in 1965 to “enforce the 15th amendment to the Constitution”, which meant that State governments could no longer deny Black people the right to vote by imposing poll taxes, the grandfather clause, literacy tests and other bureaucratic restrictions.
This historic legislation also provided for the appointment of federal examiners, with the power to register qualified citizens to vote in particular jurisdictions that were "covered" according to the Act.
Section 4 of the Act set out what was called the “coverage formula”, defining the “covered jurisdictions” as States or political subdivisions that maintained discriminatory tests or devices to restrict voting.
To ward against future discrimination, Section 5 of The Voting Rights Act also required “covered jurisdictions” to get Federal pre-clearance for any new voting procedures.
The Voting Rights Act had a huge impact on Blacks. For example, in the state of Mississippi, only 6.7% of African Americans were registered in 1964. After the Act was passed, registration jumped to 58 %.
But segregationists and defenders of the Confederacy never supported the new law, and these states attempted to roll it back immediately.
Right-wing forces have consistently contested the Voting Rights Act in the courts, culminating in the 2013 Shelby County v Holder case, which resulted in the Supreme Court giving states back the power to install discriminatory voting practices.
Chief Justice John Roberts, a long-time opponent of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, declared that “Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional”, and that the “formula [is] based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day”.
Roberts’ Supreme Court decision gutted Section 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Most recently, the Court’s conservative majority voted on July 1 to overturn what remained of the Act, effectively giving Republican legislators free reign to impose voting restrictions. This decision effectively nullifies the 1965 Act.
Conservative justice, Samuel Alito made it clear that minor discrimination is legal, saying: “The mere fact that there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system ... does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote.”
The movement against voting rights is serious, and given the conservative forces in Congress and in the Supreme Court, legislative reform alone will not ensure voting rights. A mass movement of citizens and residents demanding voting rights is needed.