By Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project
Across the country, we are witnessing the continued trend of Republican leaders passing measures that make it harder for Black and poor people to vote. In Georgia’s Spaulding County, two Republican officials created a new law that only applies to the county to elect a fifth member of the Spaulding County Board of Elections. Upon the law’s passage, the legislators privately interviewed candidates, selected a Republican to fill the new vacancy and then the newly constituted group ended Sunday voting, which Black voters disproportionately use.
In today’s environment, too many thought leaders are making conversations about voting rights academic, but the motivation for restricting voting is simple. Republicans wants to hold onto power. They want control at every level of government, from school boards to prosecutor and district attorney races to state legislatures to statewide offices to Congress and the White House. That creates conflict, because in the marketplace of ideas, fewer and fewer Americans are subscribing to the GOP vision for the nation. Given the juxtaposition between what Americans want and what the GOP is offering, the only way for Republicans to maintain power and control is to cheat.
But the levers that allow Republicans to manipulate voting rules for partisan gain were laid years ago. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court eliminated Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That allowed Republicans a means of restricting the right to vote without having to get their plans precleared by the Department of Justice. Many of the voting rights laws that we see today would have had to be precleared prior to going into effect. That extra step protected voters and the franchise. Unfortunately, all hell has broken loose since the Voting Rights Act was gutted.
Making matters worse, in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court allowed corporations and outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. That reversed a century-old precedent around campaign finance laws and allowed entities all over the country to interfere with elections, tipping the outcome in races without transparency or accountability. It also minimized average voters’ ability to determine candidates of choice. The truth is that unlimited dark money has terribly influenced American politics.
But the nail in the proverbial coffin is redistricting. Redistricting is the drawing of state and congressional lines. It occurs once in a decade following the census and determines the number of seats allotted to each region. It also impacts who can win those seats in the first place. When redistricting is done unfairly, it gives certain politicians, namely Republicans, a chance at picking up more seats per state, even when the demographic population would naturally make it easier for a Democrat to win. When done with ill intent, elected officials pick their voters, and voters have little chance – regardless of how large their voting bloc may be – of determining candidates who will represent their interests.
It is one tool in a broader arsenal to dilute Black people’s voting power. Gerrymandered districts don’t just exist to give Republicans an upper hand; they’re done to prevent Black people from electing candidates of choice.
More recently, in the South, there has been justifiable anger over the failure of the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Organizers did all they could, but in the end, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema tanked the bills. They have been on a roll lately. Both received massive donations after vowing to oppose President Biden’s $1.75 million infrastructure package, the Build Back Better Act. Manchin reportedly raked in $300,000 days after publicly opposing the Build Back Better Act and raised over $4.8 million in 2021. Sinema received over $1.5 million in the last quarter of 2021. The money came after Sinema objected to a change in the filibuster, opposed the Build Back Better Act, the climate change bill and a measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. One could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Manchin and Sinema sold out voters for campaign cash. This was not about Senate rules; this was about keeping donors happy.
Attempts to make it harder to vote aren’t new. They have been going on in one form or another for decades. But here is the lesson I want readers to grasp: Organized resistance from ordinary people has been the most effective check on the power of the elite, dictators and authoritarian sympathizers. The power of the people has been the only check on the machinations of strong men. It has been the wall of resistance, challenging the power of money.
Follow the Example of the Luminaries
In this moment, there are three things I’d like ordinary people to remember. First, we should follow the examples of the luminaries, including martyrs who have died for the cause of freedom. They’ve given us the playbook. We must be mindful and remember that one failed vote doesn’t mean we’ve failed. There will be additional opportunities to protect the franchise, even if we have to create those avenues.
Next, I want us all to remember that elected officials are not visionaries. They cannot lead our movements; they can only be servants of the people. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other elected officials are not leaders of the movement. They can be champions, but they are not our North Star. The North Star is love for self, love for family and love for the community. When elected leaders are no longer humble enough to do the people’s work, they must be replaced.
Third, voting is a tool to hire people to go to Washington or the state capitol to do work on behalf of our communities. Voting is a tool to build the kind of country in which we want to live. Certainly, we do not want to relinquish our right to vote, but it is important to remember that voting is a means to an end – not the end.
In conclusion, my message to people who are discouraged is to remember the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” In the South, we focus on the work of bending the arc. The question we must ask ourselves is: What are we doing to bend the arc? What campaigns are we volunteering on or donating to that would help create the kind of world we envision?
The arc is long but there is a place for all of us to engage. We are a part of an unbroken chain of freedom fighters. Let’s remember their legacy and continue the fight for justice.
Nse Ufot is the executive director of the New Georgia Project, a Harvard IOP fellow, and author.