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Can a New Coalition Beat Back Voter Suppression?

An alliance of state lawmakers deserves credit for a collective effort to fight disenfranchisement of minority and Democratic voters. But they will need a lot more support to win the fight to protect the sacred right to vote.

Voters in Raleigh, N.C.
The line to vote stretches to the parking lot at a community center in Raleigh, N.C., on the last day of early voting in the 2022 midterm elections. Members of the new alliance of lawmakers from six Southern states say removing barriers to voting will make it easier for everyone to participate in democracy. (Shutterstock)
Pro-democracy state legislators are finally getting smart. Forty of them from six Southern states have formed an alliance in a concerted effort to counteract legislative activity to suppress the vote. Introducing legislation of their own, they are collaborating to fight back against recent attempts — and successes — by conservative legislators to disenfranchise minority and Democratic voters.

Calling itself the Southern Freedom to Vote Alliance and affiliated with SiX Action, the advocacy arm of the State Innovation Exchange, the coalition of elected officials from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas deserves credit for attempting to work collectively, whether or not its efforts are successful in the end.

Organizers say the alliance is open to any legislator, regardless of party affiliation, who supports protecting the freedom to vote. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt about which party has moved in force to suppress that freedom. As Georgia state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat, put it in a press release, the alliance is needed because “this attack on our freedom to vote … has escalated since 2020 when Republicans across the country started losing their stronghold in leadership roles.”

Another Democrat, Florida state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, a former college professor and administrator at Valencia College in Orlando, spoke with me recently and said she hopes the alliance will create an “army of legislators and grass-roots folks to change the game and build a bench of good candidates to help fight gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression.”

She complains that having to devote as much time as she and other alliance members must to defending the vote — supposedly secured nearly 60 years ago — detracts from their time and ability to focus on the bread-and-butter needs of their constituencies: quality housing; sustainable-wage jobs; and fresh fruits, meats and vegetables “because they live in food deserts.” Calling affluent, well-educated conservatives who support efforts to suppress today’s minority and Democratic vote “James Crow Esquires,” Thompson believes her Republican colleagues are trying to turn back the hands of time.

I have observed for some time Republicans from all levels of government operating from the same playbook: Win at all costs. Moderate, conservative and right-wing Republicans, in many cases controlling all three branches of state government, have shown discipline and unity in activity likely to suppress the minority and Democratic vote. The idea of the alliance is to create an organization equally as disciplined.

With Democratic legislators in many states not having the numbers to stop them, Republican lawmakers have purged voter rolls, closed polling places and reduced voting hours. And there’s more: In Florida last year, 20 people convicted of certain felonies who thought mistakenly — or were led to believe — that their right to vote had been restored by a 2018 ballot measure were arrested after voting in the 2020 election.

When I asked Thompson, the Florida senator, what the motive of those working overtime to suppress the vote is, she said, “It’s a reaction to the ‘browning’ of America. … Conservatives are afraid that increased voter participation will be for Democrats.”

Alliance members say removing barriers to voting will make it easier for everyone to participate in democracy, including working-class whites from rural communities. Among the legislation they have introduced or plan to introduce are:

• Georgia bills that would extend early voting for primary and general elections; allow voters to use any precinct within their county; give voters with children under 5 preferential treatment when voting; and allow for Saturday and Sunday voting the weekend before elections.

• Florida legislation, aimed at clarifying criminal defendants’ voting rights upon completion of their sentences, that “specifies information to be provided on sentencing scoresheets concerning restoration of voting rights and requires scoresheets to be provided to defendants before sentencing is imposed.”

• And bills to be introduced in North Carolina to “define intimidation and ban intimidation/harassment” of voters and election officials and to prohibit guns from polling places.
"Colored" water fountain
A drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn in Halifax, N.C., in 1938. Jim Crow segregation extended to efforts to prevent Blacks and other minorities from registering to vote. (Library of Congress)
I never imagined that in my lifetime I would experience public officials and their constituents having to fight again to protect the right to vote. Growing up in segregated Missouri in the 1950s and '60s, I vividly recall “colored” and “white” drinking fountains and difficulties that Blacks and other minorities faced attempting to register to vote. I cringe from memories of vicious dogs being unleashed on law-abiding citizens whose only crimes were protesting illegal Jim Crow laws that denied the right for them to vote.

Are we returning to those days again?

Here are some questions I believe we all need answered: Where is the collective memory of society? Where is the conscience of a nation that professes to believe in democracy? And, above all, why do conservative politicians believe that African Americans and other minorities today will sit back quietly and let the rights that their parents and grandparents died for be taken away?

I give the alliance credit for trying to see to it that that doesn’t continue to happen, at least not without a big fight. But for this battle to be won, it will take more than just 40 legislators. It will take thousands of lawmakers — hopefully of both parties — willing to protect the sacred right to vote.

As more legislators enlist in the battle to preserve the vote, let them keep in mind the reason history compels them to do so. As alliance member and North Carolina state Sen. Jay Chaudhuri put it in the press statement announcing the forming of the alliance: “We must stop letting history repeat itself. … Too many people fought and died for our freedom to vote.”

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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