By Jenny Manrique
The dramatic image of Texas Democrats leaving the legislature before midnight to block a voter restriction bill spotlights a surge of activism to secure access to the polls. Voting rights advocates believe this growing activism can still win passage of federal legislation to counter measures such as SB 7, which Texas Governor Greg Abbott has vowed to pass.
“SB 7 will make it harder for everyone to vote in Texas, but particularly for people of color, people with disabilities and people who use English as a second language,” said Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, during a press briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services.
“But there is growing opposition to this bill from people of all different ethnic backgrounds, business leaders like the American Airlines CEO, faith leaders talking to their congregations, economists and even Republicans who are saying this just doesn’t make sense,” Marziani added.
In essence, SB 7 seeks to drastically reduce early voting hours, Sunday morning voting that is particularly popular with parishioners in Black churches and NGO efforts to get out the vote. It also attempts to prohibit local election officials from distributing vote-by-mail applications and to make it easier for politicians alleging fraud to have an election overturned with limited proof.
“The people who are currently in power in the state of Texas want to insulate their own power by changing the rules of the game. But the fact of the matter is Texas has changed (demographically),” Marziani said.
Two federal bills, the For the People Act and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, both with strong bipartisan support, aim to counterbalance voter suppression initiatives such as SB 7.
In North Carolina, a bill in the State Senate to reduce the time to request and return an absentee ballot directly affects the African-American community.
North Dakota has been pushing a voter identification law that requires residence, something impossible for Native Americans in a state that does not assign residential addresses to reservations.
In Georgia, a new voting law that takes effect July 1 prevents proactive ballot requests by mail, and even prohibits giving food or water to people who stand in long lines to vote in person.
“The For the People Act is advancing the work this country has been doing since the civil rights movement,” said Elizabeth Hira, Spitzer fellow and policy counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Invidious discrimination, often race based, is very much still alive in American law.”
The For the People Act includes automatic voter registration, online voter registration that is not yet operational in 10 states across the country and two weeks of early voting, which would favor mothers and workers who do not have the flexibility to line up exclusively on a Tuesday, the election day.
Other provisions include increasing the penalties for intimidation at the polls and restoring the right to vote for Americans who have been to jail, which could benefit four million people, 1.7 million of whom are Black and Latino. The bill wants to ease identification requirements that would protect 378,000 transgender Americans who are eligible to vote but do not have an ID that matches their gender identity.
It also bans partisan gerrymandering and provides grants for election security and election administration.
Hira highlighted the For the People Act’s campaign finance reform limiting large dollar contributions to politicians as “transformative.”
“The current Congress is the most diverse in history and yet 77% of legislators are White and 73% are men …In the entire history of the United States there have been 1,994 senators, and only 58 of them have been women,” Hira said.
“When you look at those statistics, you begin to realize why the policies that matter to everyday Americans have not been prioritized…because the majority of Congressmen are millionaires.”
For Alex Gulotta, national interim director of the All Voting Is Local campaign in Arizona, what happens in the fight for the right to vote is not a partisan divide but “a divide over values.”
“It is a struggle between people who believe in democracy over authoritarianism, between people who believe in facts, data and science over lies and conspiracy theories, between people who believe in justice and fairness over pure political power and greed.”
Gulotta highlighted the historic turnout in the 2020 elections, despite the worst health crisis the world has faced in a century with the Covid-19 pandemic. In Arizona, for example, the participation of Asian Americans increased 17%, African Americans 11%, Native Americans 8% and Latinos 5%. All these communities have the highest rates of coronavirus infections. But thanks to their pressure, of nearly 50 bills with ballot restrictions, only three of them passed the Arizona legislature.
“This is a huge national fight financed by a lot of dark money,” Gulotta said, referring to organizations like Heritage Action, which defines itself as “a grassroots army of commited conservative activists on the front line against the liberal agenda.”
The activist nonetheless believes that the education and mobilization of communities that increasingly understand that “voting is the last act in a civic engagement process” will make the 2022 elections even more successful than the 2020 elections.
Jenny Manrique is an associate editor at Ethnic Media Services.