Bill Knight | Voting rights



Most people seem relieved that April’s consolidated local election is going smoothly, and that November’s election is over (one that longtime Republican Christopher Krebs, U.S. Cybersecurity chief, said was “the most secure in American history”). Despite that – some say because of November’s outcome – there’s a war on voting.

The right to vote in a free, fair and secure election is the cornerstone of self-government, and in Washington, the Supreme Court on March 2 heard arguments about an Arizona law limiting voting access; the House on March 3 passed the “For the People” Act protecting voting; and President Biden on March 7 signed an executive order directing the government to promote voting access.

Outside Washington, dozens of state legislatures, including Illinois, are considering Republican proposals to limit voting.

“For the People” (HR 1) means to lower barriers to voting through automatic, online or same-day registration, making Election Day a federal holiday, establishing a minimum of 15 days of early voting for federal elections, expanding ways to vote by mail, and ensuring paper-ballot records.

GOP opponents complain that counting mail-in ballots arriving after Election Day – even those cast on time – would lead to uncertainty about results on election night. (So? It’s more vital to count all the votes, regardless of delays beyond voters’ control, than to ease impatient viewers.)

Other foes, such as Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, voted against the measure because it infringed on states’ rights (which was the excuse for segregated schools and other Jim Crow discriminations).

“HR 1 will undermine the constitutional rights of states,” LaHood said, “and increase the vulnerability of our electoral system to fraud.”

There may be problems with HR 1, like the two dominant parties consolidating their financial power by hiking big donations through party committees and dramatically raising the threshold to get matching funds, excluding third parties. However, it also restricts purges of voter rolls without certain information, prohibits “materially false” claims intended to discourage voting with 60 days of balloting, and criminalizes acts to “hinder, interfere with or prevent another person from registering.”

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court seems about to uphold Arizona laws banning out-of-precinct voting and restricting collection of early ballots despite the 9th Court of Appeals saying that violates Sec. 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which prohibits procedures that discriminate, because “racial discrimination was a motivating factor in enacting” Arizona’s rules.

In 2013’s “Shelby v. Holder,” the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote weakened another key provision of the VRA, Sec. 5, which required federal approval for voting changes by states with a history of voter discrimination. That let states seek new restrictions on voting.

Now, the Court isn’t ruling against voter suppression, but what kinds violate the remnants of the VRA, and what kinds are OK!

Oddly, in inadvertent honesty before the Court, GOP lawyer Michael A. Carvin admitted that easier voting makes winning harder on Republicans. Striking down Arizona’s restrictions, he said, would put “us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Kenneth Mayer, an expert on voting and elections at the University of Wisconsin, told The New York Times, “The typical response by a losing party in a functioning democracy is that they alter their platform to make it more appealing. Here the response is to try to keep people from voting. It’s dangerously anti-democratic.”

Elsewhere, the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice says that Republicans in more than 30 states “have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 165 bills to restrict voting access. In a backlash to historic voter turnout in the 2020 general election – and grounded in a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities – legislators have introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to last year.”

In the Illinois House of Representatives, nine Republican lawmakers have introduced 16 bills affecting access to the polls from signature issues and voter IDs to voting by mail. Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, himself introduced four such bills, second only to Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, who sponsored five.

Some of this stems from the GOP embracing false claims of a “stolen election,” but phony claims of widespread voter fraud – which multiple probes have failed to find – aren’t new. For years, Republicans have been alarmed about their ability to win elections in an increasingly diverse country, and in the last decade stepped up attempts to erect barriers to voting — mostly affecting minorities, youth, the elderly and the poor.

Issuing his executive order commemorating the 56th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for civil rights, Biden said, “Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have that vote counted. If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.”

Whether in Peoria, Ill., or Peoria, Ariz., Americans need national standards for voting.

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to ask for the passage of a national Voting Rights Act, saying, “Their cause must be our cause, too, All of us … must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

If not, will states’ rights create a “White-only” republic?

After the April Community Word went to press, the Illinois General Assembly approved a measure about voting that runs counter to the national trend and potential negative effects of other bills in Springfield.

House Bill 1871 would allow the use of ballot drop boxes, curbside voting, and the acceptance of ballots regardless of insufficient postage.

It passed Illinois’ House March 18 with 70 Democrats voting yes and 41 Republicans voting no. The state Senate OK’d it 48-7 on March 25, with all no votes from GOP Senators.

Gov. J. B Pritzker is expected to sign it into law before the April 6 election, but it will apply to all future elections.

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