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Courts strike down Alabama and Ohio gerrymanders as Tennessee cracks Nashville

As states and local governments across the country redraw political maps for every office from city council to US House of Representatives, gerrymandering is in the news a lot lately.

We’ll start with Alabama, where a federal court has struck down the state’s congressional map as a racial gerrymander. Although the US Supreme Court under its current conservative majority has decided that federal courts cannot weigh into partisan gerrymandering, state courts remain free to act in defense of democracy. Federal courts may also enforce what’s left of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires states to create majority-minority districts if an electorate is racially polarized.

Alabama’s legislature enacted a congressional map that was expected to produce a 6-1 Republican majority. The ACLU, NAACP, and other organizations sued, contending that the state’s black voters – which constitute about 27 percent of the population – were relegated to a single majority-minority district representing only 14 percent of the state’s population. They successfully argued that a second majority-minority district is required under the VRA.

“Black people drove a disproportionate share of Alabama’s population growth. Throughout last year, Black Alabamians publicly called on the Legislature to recognize this reality and sought equal representation in Congress,” said NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Senior Counsel Deuel Ross. “The state ignored these demands, but we are deeply gratified that the unanimous court found that Black voters deserve full representation now. We look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure that Black voters are fairly represented in any remedial map.”

“Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress,” a three-judge panel consisting of two Trump appointees and one Clinton appointee wrote in its opinion, striking down Alabama’s racial gerrymander.

In its ruling, the court gave the legislature fourteen days to produce a new map that creates two majority-minority districts. If the legislature fails to act, the court will do so itself. An appeal is likely.

Ohio maps struck down

Meanwhile, in Ohio, the state’s Supreme Court struck down a gerrymander of the state’s congressional map. As we previously reported, the Ohio Supreme Court previously struck down state legislative maps as an unconstitutional gerrymander.

As we noted:

The gerrymandered maps are the product of the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission, which includes five Republicans and two Democrats. The commission produced a map – over the objections of the two Democratic members – that was expected to give Republicans a 62-37 advantage in the state House and a 23-10 advantage in the state Senate.

That’s despite former president Trump only winning Ohio 53-45% during the 2020 presidential election. Such skewed maps were likely to result in a Republican majority in both chambers regardless of the will of voters – even during campaign cycles that strongly favored Democrats.

However, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 that curtailed gerrymandering within the state. The amendment requires the commission to create boundaries that result in politically competitive districts.

The same 4-3 majority that voted to strike down the state legislative maps also axed the congressional gerrymander. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, cast the deciding vote. According to an analysis of the approved Congressional map, Republicans were favored in 12 of 15 districts. To put that in perspective, Republicans were favored to win 80 percent of House districts versus the 53 percent that the party received at the top of the ballot in 2020.

What’s quite stunning is that the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision was even a split decision. The state constitution expressly forbids gerrymandering thanks to a voter-approved ballot initiative that received over 70 percent support. Yet three of the conservative justices on the state supreme court – including the son of the incumbent governor who served on the Ohio Redistricting Commission that produced the gerrymandered maps in the first place (and incidentally refused to recuse himself) – voted to uphold the maps as constitutional.

Tennessee Republicans crack Nashville

Not all news on the gerrymandering front has been good.

Tennessee is the latest state to enact its congressional maps. Like Alabama, the state’s Republicans are aiming to limit Democrats to a single congressional district in an aggressive racial gerrymander that cracks the city of Nashville into multiple districts.

Prior to the newly-enacted map, the city of Nashville resided in a single congressional district. Democrat Jim Cooper is the long-time representative of the solidly blue 5th Congressional District that Joe Biden won by 24 points in 2020. Cooper announced his retirement this week after the gerrymandered map passed the legislature.

Although Nashville is a Democratic bastion, the surrounding congressional districts are solidly Republican. The new map carves Nashville into three different districts that stretch out to take in rural counties. The effect is to dilute the votes of the city’s black and brown voters, swamping them with rural white Republicans.

As the Tennessean reports:

The share of the population made up by Black residents in Tennessee’s potential new 5th Congressional District would plummet. In the proposed new 7th, Black residents would account for 16% of the district’s population. In the new 6th, Black residents would account for less than 10%. In the 5th, the Black population would fall to 11.9%.

Black residents account for 24.3% of the population in the current 5th Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.

All of the new Nashville-based districts will have a Republican lean, although it’s conceivable that one or two of the districts may become competitive later in the decade if Nashville’s population continues to boom and newcomers from out of state bring left-leaning voting habits with them.

For now, the 5th Congressional District will go from D+9 to R+8. As for the rest of Tennessee’s congressional districts, the state is now looking at an 8-1 map where Democrats are relegated to a single VRA-protected district centered around Memphis.

The bottom line is that Tennessee Republicans are trying to muzzle Nashville’s black and brown voters, which should come as no surprise since this is a state that is censoring teachers on race. Expect a court fight in the weeks and months ahead.

Photo Credit: Jason MrachinaFlickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Ohio Supreme Court strikes down state legislative maps as unconstitutional gerrymander

The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the state’s gerrymandered legislative maps on Wednesday in a victory for advocates of fair elections.

The gerrymandered maps are the product of the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission, which includes five Republicans and two Democrats. The commission produced a map – over the objections of the two Democratic members – that was expected to give Republicans a 62-37 advantage in the state House and a 23-10 advantage in the state Senate.

That’s despite former president Trump only winning Ohio 53-45% during the 2020 presidential election. Such skewed maps were likely to result in a Republican majority in both chambers regardless of the will of voters – even during campaign cycles that strongly favored Democrats.

However, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 that curtailed gerrymandering within the state. The amendment requires the commission to create boundaries that result in politically competitive districts.

“The commission is required to attempt to draw a plan in which the statewide proportion of Republican-leaning districts to Democratic-leaning districts closely corresponds to those percentages,” the Ohio Supreme Court majority wrote, rebutting Republican commissioners who contended that the constitutional amendment was merely “aspirational” in nature. “Section 6 speaks not of desire but of direction: the commission shall attempt to achieve the standards of that section.”

“We reject the notion that Ohio voters rallied so strongly behind an anti-gerrymandering amendment to the Ohio Constitution yet believed at the time that the amendment was toothless,” the majority added.

The Ohio Supreme Court has a 4-3 Republican majority. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, cast the deciding vote.

In addition to the state legislative maps, the Ohio Supreme Court is also considering a challenge to Ohio’s Congressional map, which is even more skewed in favor of Republicans. According to an analysis of the approved Congressional map, Republicans are favored in 12 of 15 districts – 80 percent of districts versus the 53 percent that the party received at the top of the ballot.

“This case is about how the General Assembly has thumbed its nose at these reforms and enacted a plan that palpably violates Article 19’s new anti-gerrymandering protections,” attorney Ben Stafford told the Ohio Supreme Court, which is expected to decide on whether to throw out the Congressional map in the coming weeks.

Photo Credit: Sixflashphoto, CC BY-SA 4.0

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Senate prepares for vote on voting rights and filibuster reform

Senator Chuck Schumer announced today that he is moving ahead with a planned vote on voting rights and a potential rule change meant to reform the filibuster.

Filibuster reform is necessary in order to pass voting rights since the Republican Party is united against the voting rights bills currently under consideration in Congress, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. (Senator Lisa Murkowski voted to allow debate to proceed but does not support the bill as written.)

According to Politico:

Chuck Schumer will bring elections and voting legislation to the Senate floor in the coming days, using existing congressional rules to evade an initial GOP filibuster.

The House will imminently pass a bill containing both sweeping federal elections reform and beefed up Voting Right Act provisions. Because the bill will be sent to the Senate as a “message” from the House, it will not be subject to an initial filibuster by the GOP and will be debated on the floor.

Instead, the Senate will confront its raging debate over the filibuster when Majority Leader Schumer moves to shut down debate.

“The Senate will finally debate voting rights legislation, and then every senator will be faced with a choice of whether or not to pass the legislation to protect our democracy,” Schumer wrote in a memo, obtained by POLITICO, to Senate Democrats.

The voting rights legislation is necessary to combat dozens of voter suppression laws passed in Republican-controlled states over the past year, including in Georgia where it is now illegal to give voters water or food while standing in line. The voter suppression laws are part of the reason – along with Donald Trump’s attempted coup and pushing of the Big Lie – why the United States is now considered a backsliding democracy.

Filibuster reform

Under current Senate rules, 60 votes are required to end debate on a bill and move on to a vote. There are exceptions to the filibuster, such as the budgetary process known as reconciliation, but it only covers budgetary matters.

Rather than completely eliminate the filibuster, the Senate could modify its rules so that in order to filibuster a bill you have to physically stand at a lectern, speak, and hold the floor for as long as you can stand. This is what is known as the talking filibuster, and it was the tradition in the Senate for over a century.

Personally, I like to call this proposal the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rule. As I wrote last March:

The Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rule would give the minority party the chance to delay a bill and rally the American people against it. If a bill is as bad as opponents claim, they could still potentially stop it. However, it would not give a minority of senators a veto that does not exist in the Constitution. Once opponents cede the floor, the bill moves to a vote.

According to reporting from Politico and others, Schumer and Senate Democrats are considering implementing the talking filibuster / Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rule. This would restore the Senate’s long tradition of allowing unlimited debate (or at least as long as senators can stand) without giving the minority a veto.

Another possibility is that the Senate could create a carveout for voting rights legislation. The chamber created an exception to the filibuster – on a bipartisan basis, no less – to allow a debt ceiling increase just last month. As Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts observed, if the Senate can create a carveout for the debt ceiling, why not voting rights?

Of course, this all hinges on the cooperation of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have said that they oppose eliminating the 60-vote threshold, thus killing voting rights legislation in the process. If the senators truly support voting rights (as they claim) and a functional Senate where the majority can actually govern, they will get behind filibuster reform that includes either a talking filibuster or a carveout for voting rights.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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FULL TEXT: President Biden speech on voting rights in Atlanta, Georgia

President Joe Biden delivered a speech in defense of democracy and in support of voting rights legislation as the nation undergoes an unprecedented attempt to suppress the vote.

Biden delivered the following remarks at Atlanta University Center Consortium in Atlanta, Georgia on January 11, 2022:

In our lives and the lives of our nation — the life of our nation, there are moments so stark that they divide all that came before from everything that followed.  They stop time.  They rip away the trivial from the essential.  And they force us to confront hard truths about ourselves, about our institutions, and about our democracy.

In the words of Scripture, they remind us to “hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate.”

Last week, [Vice] President Harris and I stood in the United States Capitol to observe one of those “before and after” moments in American history: January 6th insurrection on the citadel of our democracy.

Today, we come to Atlanta — the cradle of civil rights — to make clear what must come after that dreadful day when a dagger was literally held at the throat of American democracy.

We stand on the grounds that connect Clark Atlanta — Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and near Spelman College — the home of generations of advocates, activists, educators and preachers; young people, just like the students here, who have done so much to build a better America.  (Applause.)

We visited the sacred Ebenezer Baptist Church and paused to prayed at the crypt of Dr. and Mrs. King, and spent time with their family.  And here in the district — as was pointed out — represented and reflected the life of beloved friend, John Lewis.

In their lifetimes, time stopped when a bomb blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and murdered four little girls.

They [Time] stopped when John and many others seeking justice were beaten and bloodied while crossing the bridge at Selma named after the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

They stopped — time stopped, and they forced the country to confront the hard truths and to act — to act to keep the promise of America alive: the promise that holds that we’re all created equal but, more importantly, deserve to be treated equally.  And from those moments of darkness and despair came light and hope.

Democrats, Republicans, and independents worked to pass the historic Civil Rights Act and the voting rights legislation.  And each successive generation continued that ongoing work.

But then the violent mob of January 6th, 2021, empowered and encouraged by a defeated former president, sought to win through violence what he had lost at the ballot box, to impose the will of the mob, to overturn a free and fair election, and, for the first time — the first time in American history, they — to stop the peaceful transfer of power.

They failed.  They failed.  (Applause.)  But democracy’s — but democracy’s visi- — victory was not certain, nor is democracy’s future.

That’s why we’re here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle, forces that attempted a coup — a coup against the legally expressed will of the American people — by sowing doubt, inventing charges of fraud, and seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people.

They want chaos to reign.  We want the people to rule.  (Applause.)

But let me be clear: This is not about me or Vice President Harris or our party; it’s about all of us.  It’s about the people.  It’s about America.

Hear me plainly: The battle for the soul of America is not over.  We must stand strong and stand together to make sure January 6th marks not the end of democracy but the beginning of a renaissance of our democracy.  (Applause.)

You know, for the right to vote and to have that vote counted is democracy’s threshold liberty.  Without it, nothing is possible, but with it, anything is possible.

But while the denial of fair and free elections is un-democratic, it is not unprecedented.

Black Americans were denied full citizenship and voting rights until 1965.  Women were denied the right to vote until just 100 years ago.  The United States Supreme Court, in recent years, has weakened the Voting Rights Act.  And now the defeated former president and his supporters use the Big Lie about the 2020 election to fuel torrent and torment and anti-voting laws — new laws designed to suppress your vote, to subvert our elections.

Here in Georgia, for years, you’ve done the hard work of democracy: registering voters, educating voters, getting voters to the polls.  You’ve built a broad coalition of voters: Black, white, Latino, Asian American, urban, suburban, rural, working class, and middle class. 

And it’s worked: You’ve changed the state by bringing more people, legally, to the polls.  (Applause.)  That’s how you won the historic elections of Senator Raphael Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff.  (Applause.) 

You did it — you did it the right way, the democratic way.

And what’s been the reaction of Republicans in Georgia?  Choose the wrong way, the undemocratic way.  To them, too many people voting in a democracy is a problem.  So they’re putting up obstacles.

For example, voting by mail is a safe and convenient way to get more people to vote, so they’re making it harder for you to vote by mail. 

The same way, I might add, in the 2020 Election, President Trump voted from behind the desk in the White House — in Florida. 

Dropping your ballots off to secure drop boxes — it’s safe, it’s convenient, and you get more people to vote.  So they’re limiting the number of drop boxes and the hours you can use them. 

Taking away the options has a predictable effect: longer lines at the polls, lines that can last for hours.  You’ve seen it with your own eyes.  People get tired and they get hungry.

When the Bible teaches us to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, the new Georgia law actually makes it illegal — think of this — I mean, it’s 2020, and now ’22, going into that election — it makes it illegal to bring your neighbors, your fellow voters food or water while they wait in line to vote.  What in the hell — heck are we talking about?  (Laughter and applause.)

I mean, think about it.  (Applause.)  That’s not America.  That’s what it looks like when they suppress the right to vote. 

And here’s how they plan to subvert the election: The Georgia Republican Party, the state legislature has now given itself the power to make it easier for partisan actors — their cronies — to remove local election officials. 

Think about that.  What happened in the last election?  The former president and allies pursued, threatened, and intimidated state and local election officials.

Election workers — ordinary citizens — were subject to death threats, menacing phone calls, people stalking them in their homes.

Remember what the defeated former president said to the highest-ranking election official — a Republican — in this state?  He said, quote, “I just want to find 11,780 votes.” 

Pray God.  (Laughter.)  He didn’t say that part.  (Laughter.)

He didn’t say, “Count the votes.”  He said, “find votes” that he needed to win.

He failed because of the courageous officials — Democrats, Republicans — who did their duty and upheld the law.  (Applause.)

But with this new law in Georgia, his loyal- — his loyalists will be placed in charge of state elections.  (Laughs.)  What is that going to mean?  Well, the chances for chaos and subversion are even greater as partisans seek the result they want — no matter what the voters have said, no matter what the count.  The votes of nearly 5 million Georgians will be up for grabs if that law holds.

It’s not just here in Georgia.  Last year alone, 19 states not proposed but enacted 34 laws attacking voting rights.  There were nearly 400 additional bills Republican members of state legislatures tried to pass.  And now, Republican legislators in several states have already announced plans to escalate the onslaught this year.

Their endgame?  To turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion — something states can respect or ignore.

Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion.  It’s no longer about who gets to vote; it’s about making it harder to vote.  It’s about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all.

It’s not hyperbole; this is a fact. 

Look, this matters to all of us.  The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them.  Simple as that.  The facts won’t matter; your vote won’t matter.  They’ll just decide what they want and then do it.

That’s the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies. 

We must be vigilant.

And the world is watching.  I know the majority of the world leaders — the good and the bad ones, adversaries and allies alike.  They’re watching American democracy and seeing whether we can meet this moment.  And that’s not hyperbole.

When I showed up at the G7 with seven other world leaders — there were a total of nine present — Vice President Harris and I have spent our careers doing this work — I said, “America is back.”  And the response was, “For how long?”  “For how long?” 

As someone who’s worked in foreign policy my whole life, I never thought I would ever hear our allies say something like that.

Over the past year, we’ve directed federal agencies to promote access to voting, led by the Vice President.  We’ve appointed top civil rights advocates to help the U.S. Department of Justice, which has doubled its voting rights enforcement staff.

And today, we call on Congress to get done what history will judge: Pass the Freedom to Vote Act.  (Applause.)  Pass it now — (applause) — which would prevent voter suppression so that here in Georgia there’s full access to voting by mail, there are enough drop boxes during enough hours so that you can bring food and water as well to people waiting in line. 

The Freedom to Vote Act takes on election subversion to protect nonpartisan electors [election] officials, who are doing their job, from intimidation and interference.

It would get dark money out of politics, create fairer district maps and ending partisan gerrymandering.  (Applause.)

Look, it’s also time to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.  (Applause.) 

I’ve been having these quiet conversations with the members of Congress for the last two months.  I’m tired of being quiet!  (Applause.)

Folks, it’ll restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act of ’65 — the one President Johnson signed after John Lewis was beaten, nearly killed on Bloody Sunday, only to have the Supreme Court weaken it multiple times over the past decade.

Restoring the Voting Rights Act would mean the Justice Department can stop discriminatory laws before they go into effect — before they go into effect.  (Applause.) 
The Vice President and I have supported voting rights bills since day one of this administration.  But each and every time, Senate Republicans have blocked the way.  Republicans oppose even debating the issue.  You hear me?

I’ve been around the Senate a long time.  I was Vice President for eight years.  I’ve never seen a circumstance where not one single Republican has a voice that’s ready to speak for justice now.

When I was a senator, including when I headed up the Judiciary Committee, I helped reauthorize the Voting [Rights] Act three times.  We held hearings.  We debated.  We voted.  I was able to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 years.

In 2006, the Voting Rights Act passed 390 to 33 in
the House of Representatives and 98 to 0 in the Senate with votes from 16 current sitting Republicans in this United States Senate.  Sixteen of them voted to extend it.

The last year I was chairman, as some of my friends sitting down here will tell you, Strom Thurmond voted to extend the Voting Rights Act.  Strom Thurmond.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Wow.

THE PRESIDENT:   You can say that again: “Wow.”  You have no idea how damn ha- — how darn hard I worked on that one.  (Laughter and applause.)

But, folks, then it was signed into law, the last time, by President George W. Bush.

You know, when we got voting rights extended in the 1980s, as I’ve said, even Thurmond supported it.  Think about that.  The man who led the longest filibu- — one of the longest filibusters in history in the United States Senate in 1957 against the Voting Rights Act [Civil Rights Act].  The man who led and sided with the old Southern Bulls in the United States Senate to perpetuate segregation in this nation.  Even Strom Thurmond came to support voting rights.

But Republicans today can’t and won’t.  Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America’s right to vote.  Not one.  Not one.

We have 50-50 in the United States Senate.  That means we have 51 presidents.  (Laughter.)  You all think I’m kidding.  (Laughter.)

I’ve been pretty good at working with senators my whole career.  But, man, when you got 51 presidents, it gets harder.  Any one can change the outcome.

Sadly, the United States Senate — designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body — has been rendered a shell of its former self.  It gives me no satisfaction in saying that, as an institutionalist, as a man who was honored to serve in the Senate.

But as an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote. 

Let the majority prevail.  (Applause.)  And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.  (Applause.)

You know, last year, if I’m not mistaken, the filibuster was used 154 times.  The filibuster has been used to generate compromise in the past and promote some bipartisanship.  But it’s also been used to obstruct — including and especially obstruct civil rights and voting rights.

And when it was used, senators traditionally used to have to stand and speak at their desks for however long it took, and sometimes it took hours.  And when they sat down, if no one immediately stood up, anyone could call for a vote or the debate ended.

But that doesn’t happen today.  Senators no longer even have to speak one word.  The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart.

The filibuster has been weaponized and abused.

While the state legislatures’ assault on voting rights is simple — all you need in your House and Senate is a pure majority — in the United States Senate, it takes a supermajority: 60 votes, even to get a vote — instead of 50 — to protect the right to vote.

State legislatures can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities.  If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority.  (Applause.)

Today I’m making it clear: To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed — (applause) — to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.  (Applause.)  

When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, the majority should rule in the United States Senate.  

I make this announcement with careful deliberation, recognizing the fundamental right to vote is the right from which all other rights flow.

And I make it with an appeal to my Republican colleagues, to those Republicans who believe in the rule of law: Restore the bipartisan tradition of voting rights. 

The people who restored it, who abided by it in the past were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush.  They all supported the Voting Rights Act.

Don’t let the Republican Party morph into something else.  Restore the institution of the Senate the way it was designed to be.

Senate rules were just changed to raise the debt ceiling so we wouldn’t renege on our debt for the first time in our history and prevent an economic crisis.  That was done by a simple majority.

As Senator Warnock said a few weeks ago in a powerful speech: If we change the rules to protect the full faith and credit of the United States, we should be able to change the rules to protect the heart and soul of our democracy.  (Applause.)  He was right.

In the days that followed John Lewis’s death, there was an outpouring of praise and support across the political spectrum.

But as we stand here today, it isn’t enough just to praise his memory.  We must translate eulogy into action.  We need to follow John Lewis’s footsteps.  We need to support the bill in his name.

Just a few days ago, we talked about — up in the Congress and in the White House — the event coming up shortly to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.  And Americans of all stripes will praise him for the content of his character.

But as Dr. King’s family said before, it’s not enough to praise their father.  They even said: On this holiday, don’t celebrate his birthday unless you’re willing to support what he lived for and what he died for.  (Applause.)

The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation’s history.

We will choose — the issue is: Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice? 

I know where I stand.  I will not yield.  I will not flinch.  I will defend the right to vote, our democracy against all enemies — foreign and, yes, domestic.  (Applause.)

And the question is: Where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?  Every senator — Democrat, Republican, and independent — will have to declare where they stand, not just for the moment, but for the ages.

Will you stand against voter suppression?  Yes or no?  That’s the question they’ll answer.  Will you stand against election subversion?  Yes or no?  Will you stand for democracy?  Yes or no?

And here’s one thing every senator and every American should remember: History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters’ rights.  And it will be even less kind for those who side with election subversion.

So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? 

At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be the si- — on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?  Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?  Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?

This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.  (Applause.)

And if you do that, you will not be alone.  That’s because the struggle to protect voting rights has never been borne by one group alone.

We saw Freedom Riders of every race.  Leaders of every faith marching arm in arm.  And, yes, Democrats and Republicans in Congress of the United States and in the presidency.

I did not live the struggle of Douglass, Tubman, King, Lewis, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, and countless others — known and unknown.

I did not walk in the shoes of generations of students who walked these grounds.  But I walked other grounds.  Because I’m so damn old, I was there as well.  (Laughter.)

You think I’m kidding, man.  (Laughter.)  It seems like yesterday the first time I got arrested.  Anyway — (laughter).

But their struggles here — they were the ones that opened my eyes as a high school student in the late — in the late ’50s and early ’60s.  They got me more engaged in the work of my life.

And what we’re talking about today is rooted in the very idea of America — the idea that Annell Ponder, who graduated
from Clark Atlanta, captured in a single word.  She was a teacher and librarian who was also an unyielding champion of voting rights.

In 1963 — when I was just starting college at university — after registering voters in Mississippi, she was pulled off a bus, arrested, and jailed, where she was brutally beaten.

In her cell, next to her, was Fannie Lou Hamer, who described the beating this way, and I quote: “I could hear the sounds of [the] licks and [the] horrible screams…They beat her, I don’t know [for] how long.  And after a while, she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.”

Annell Ponder’s friends visited her the next day.  Her face was badly swollen.  She could hardly talk.

But she managed to whi- — whisper one word: “Freedom.”  “Freedom” — the only word she whispered.

After nearly 250 years since our founding, that singular idea still echoes.  But it’s up to all of us to make sure it never fades, especially the students here — your generation that just started voting — as there are those who are trying to take away that vi- — vote you just started to be able to exercise. 

But the giants we honor today were your age when they made clear who we must be as a nation.  Not a joke.  Think about it.  In the early ’60s, they were sitting where you’re sitting.  They were you.  And like them, you give me much hope for the future.

Before and after in our lives — and in the life of the nation — democracy is who we are, who we must be — now and forever.  So, let’s stand in this breach together.  Let’s love good, establish justice in the gate. 

And remember, as I said, there is one — this is one of those defining moments in American history: Each of those who vote will be remembered by class after class, in the ’50s and ’60s — the 2050s and ’60s.  Each one of the members of the Senate is going to be judged by history on where they stood before the vote and where they stood after the vote. 

There’s no escape.  So, let’s get back to work. 

As my fath- — my grandfather Finnegan used to say every time I walked out the door in Scranton, he’d say, “Joey, keep the faith.”  Then he’d say, “No, Joey, spread it.” 

Let’s spread the faith and get this done.  (Applause.) 

May God bless you all.  And may God protect the sacred right to vote.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  I mean it.  Let’s go get this done.  Thank you.  (Applause.) 

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News

The US is now considered a backsliding democracy

For the first time, the United States is considered a backsliding democracy.

That finding is according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden. The think tank notes that the US began to backslide “at least since 2019.”

The report specifically cites eroding civil liberties, a decline in freedom of assembly after the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, and former president Donald Trump’s questioning of election results.

“A historic turning point came in 2020-21 when former president Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election results in the United States,” the report says. “The visible deterioration of democracy in the United States, as seen in the increasing tendency to contest credible election results, the efforts to suppress participation (in elections), and the runaway polarisation … is one of the most concerning developments.”

Unwelcome company

The think tank categorizes countries into three groups: democracies (including backsliding democracies), hybrid (among them Russia and Turkey), and authoritarian (such as China and Saudi Arabia).

The United States joins the ranks of Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia as backsliding democracies. All told, backsliding democracies have doubled in the past decade and now account for a quarter of the world’s population.

Meanwhile, Ukraine was removed from the list of backsliding democracies after improvements in recent years. Serbia and Mali were removed from the list of backsliding democracies because they are no longer considered democracies.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance is not alone in its assessment of the perilous state of democracy in the United States. One hundred and fifty top scholars of American democracy have signed a letter warning that “midnight is approaching.”

“Defenders of democracy in America still have a slim window of opportunity to act. But time is ticking away,” the scholars write, arguing that Congress must act to protect voting rights.

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Analysis News

Trump defends supporters’ ‘hang Mike Pence’ chants on 1/6

In newly released audio, former president Donald Trump defends his supporters chanting “hang Mike Pence!” during the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The audio comes from an interview with the former president conducted by ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl. The interview took place in March 2021 for the upcoming book Betrayal, which is set for publication on November 16.

“Were you ever worried about him during that siege? Were you worried about his safety?” Karl asked Trump during the interview.

Trump predictably said no, adding that he thought that the chant was “common sense,” citing the bogus claim that there was election fraud. Trump had urged then-Vice President Mike Pence to interfere in the counting of the Electoral College votes.

Although reporting has since found that Pence hemmed and hawed, consulting both former Vice President Dan Quayle and the Senate parliamentarian to determine his authority, he ultimately refused, drawing the ire of Trump and his mob of supporters who attacked the Capitol.

Investigating the coup attempt

The 1/6 Committee is stepping up its investigation, subpoenaing Trump administration officials and campaign staffers, even as members of Congress receive death threats. The bipartisan committee is examining Trump’s role in organizing and fomenting an insurrection in a desperate attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

While we have consistently used the words “coup attempt” to describe January 6th – after all, it bears all of the hallmarks of a self-coup – major media outlets have only recently begun to recognize the concerted effort to subvert America’s democracy and install an illegitimate president.

We’re hardly alone in acknowledging this. The Brookings Institute recognized the coup attempt for what it was back on January 9.

Charles T. Call writes:

Trump’s behavior constitutes a self-coup since he has sought to undermine the integrity of the November 3 election and has sought to overturn the results of an election. He urged voters to illegally vote twice; he sought to disenfranchise voters; he sought to coerce officials to alter the vote results. On January 6, Trump explicitly urged the mob to “walk down to the Capitol,” to “demand that Congress do the right thing,” to “show strength,” and to “take back our country.”

Trump’s mob

It should come as no surprise that Trump defended his supporters when they chanted “hang Mike Pence.” When the mob descended on the US Capitol, they did so at Trump’s behest.

While the 1/6 Committee is doing its job – despite the best efforts of Trump to undermine the investigation – Congress needs to step up and defend American democracy with stronger voting rights laws and enforcement against states that engage in voter suppression.

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Analysis News Opinion

A person of color’s right to vote and the ‘right’ to filibuster are not remotely equal

Over at NY Mag, Ed Kilgore writes about how Vice President Kamala Harris has unveiled a fallback strategy in case voting rights bills fail to pass Congress.

First, for some context, NBC News reports on the Harris announcement:

Vice President Kamala Harris will announce Thursday a $25 million investment by the Democratic National Committee to support efforts to protect voting access ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

The announcement comes as Republican-controlled states around the country have passed a wave of restrictive voting rights laws fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the results of the 2020 election.

President Joe Biden has been criticized by some Democrats and civil rights advocates for not taking a more aggressive approach to fighting those new laws after Senate Republicans blocked voting rights legislation last month.

Kilgore argues that “it’s true Democrats have failed to overcome Republican resistance to voting-rights legislation, either by securing GOP support or by convincing Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to restrict or abolish the competing right of Senate minorities to kill legislation via the filibuster.” (Ed. note: Emphasis added.)

He concludes, stating that “what Harris announced should be treated as a serious and important contribution to the cause of voting rights, not dismissed as an excuse for failure to do the impossible in Congress.”

I do not take issue with Vice President Harris or her announcement. In fact, it is vital for at least one of America’s major parties to invest in voter protections while the other party attempts to dismantle what’s left of democracy in the United States.

However, there are at least two major issues with this piece: 

1) A person of color’s right to vote and the “right” of 41 (mostly white) senators to block legislation are not remotely equal competing interests. The filibuster is the perfect demonstration of white supremacy in Congress. It was used to deny civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. Now it’s used to deny voting rights protections in the 21st century.

2) There is nothing “impossible” about the Democratic majority using their majority to pass voting rights bills. Is it difficult to get 50 senators (51 with VP Harris) to agree on legislation? Yes. But it is hardly an “impossible” task.

After all, Republicans managed to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, allowing them to ram three Trump appointees onto the Supreme Court – including a seat that they held vacant for a year in the hopes of winning the White House in 2016 and another that they filled merely days before Election Day 2020 when voters opted to kick Donald Trump to the curb. (In January 2021, voters elected a Democratic Senate majority.)

It’s also worth noting that the Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the DOJ is relying on in a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s voter suppression law. So one of the fallbacks that Kilgore mentions is basically dead in the water.

The only thing preventing Senate Democrats from eliminating the filibuster for voting rights bills, reforming the filibuster (i.e. a “talking filibuster”), or eliminating the filibuster entirely is the will to act decisively in order to protect our democracy.

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News

DOJ sues Georgia over voter suppression law

The United States Department of Justice announced on Friday that it is suing the state of Georgia over its recently-passed voter suppression law.

USA Today reports:

The Justice Department is suing the state of Georgia in an effort to overturn a sweeping state law that federal officials claim restricts Black voters’ access to the polls.

“The rights of all citizens to vote are the central pillars of our democracy,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Friday, adding that recent changes to Georgia law amounted to voter suppression.

“This lawsuit is the first step of many we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter has access to accurate information.”  

The government alleges that the state law was passed with “discriminatory purpose … that departed from normal practice and procedure.”

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, chief of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said Friday the state acted with the “intent” to deny Black voters’ access.

As we reported back in March, Georgia’s voter suppression law makes it illegal to give water to voters who are waiting in line. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The law also limits the use of convenient and secure ballot drop boxes, shortens the window to request a mail-in ballot, and restricts in-person early voting hours.

The Department of Justice’s lawsuit is an important step to ensure that voting rights are upheld. We encourage the DOJ to pursue lawsuits in other states – including critically important swing states like Arizona and Florida – where voter suppression has become the primary strategy for Republicans to retain power.

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Analysis News

This Republican governor is bucking the trend and expanding voting rights

It’s not exactly a secret that Republican-controlled legislatures and governors have gone all-in on voter suppression as their means to retain power. However, one Republican governor is an exception to the rule.

Governor Phil Scott just recently signed into law a bill that expands voting rights in the state of Vermont. According to Axios:

The new Vermont law requires the state to send mail-in ballots to all registered voters and give voters the option to fix or “cure” a ballot if it’s submitted incorrectly and considered defective. The law will also allow municipalities to send mail-in ballots for local races.

In a statement, Scott said that he believes “making sure voting is easy and accessible, and increasing voter participation, is important.”

The governor actually wants the legislature to go even further than the bill provides. He is asking state lawmakers to expand its provisions to include primaries and local elections. (The bill allows but does not require municipalities to send mail-in ballots for local elections.)

A former Republican stronghold

You may be surprised to hear that the state with Bernie Sanders representing it in the Senate has a Republican governor, but Vermont was actually a Republican stronghold not very long ago. In fact, Vermont voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 through 1988. Its transition began in 1992 when Bill Clinton was the first Democrat to carry the state since LBJ. That election proved to be a turning point. No Republican presidential candidate has won the state ever since.

Just as the “Solid South” turned from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, New England has moved in the opposite direction. Vermont is now one of the most Democratic states in the country at the presidential level – although it still elects moderate Republicans as governor. Prior to electing Bernie Sanders, Vermont sent Jim Jeffords to the Senate, a Republican-turned-independent who caucused with Democrats.

Moderate Republicans are nearly extinct

Phil Scott is less of a template and more of a dying breed. As governor, he supported Donald Trump’s impeachment. The only other Republican governor to publicly back impeachment – Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker – is another moderate Republican from New England.

Essentially, Scott and Baker represent entirely different parties from the national GOP – one that is rooted in the party’s past.

The prototypical governor in the Republican Party today looks more like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Georgia’s Brian Kemp, and Texas’ Greg Abbott. All three either back voter suppression bills or already signed them into law.

Rather than fight an all-but-assured losing internal battle over the soul of the Republican Party – a battle that Trumpists have won decisively – maybe it’s time for moderate Republicans like Phil Scott and Charlie Baker to lead a new conservative party that actually supports democracy?

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News

Scholars alarmed at ‘deterioration’ of American democracy

In an open letter, dozens of scholars from prestigious universities warned that American democracy is at risk.

“We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm. Specifically, we have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election. Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk,” the scholars write.

The scholars – who span the ideological spectrum and represent universities like Brown, Stanford, Notre Dame with notable names like Norm Ornstein and Larry Sabato – add that:

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes. They are seeking to restrict access to the ballot, the most basic principle underlying the right of all adult American citizens to participate in our democracy. They are also putting in place criminal sentences and fines meant to intimidate and scare away poll workers and nonpartisan administrators. State legislatures have advanced initiatives that curtail voting methods now preferred by Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as early voting and mail voting. Republican lawmakers have openly talked about ensuring the “purity” and “quality” of the vote, echoing arguments widely used across the Jim Crow South as reasons for restricting the Black vote.

State legislators supporting these changes have cited the urgency of “electoral integrity” and the need to ensure that elections are secure and free of fraud. But by multiple expert judgments, the 2020 election was extremely secure and free of fraud. The reason that Republican voters have concerns is because many Republican officials, led by former President Donald Trump, have manufactured false claims of fraud, claims that have been repeatedly rejected by courts of law, and which Trump’s own lawyers have acknowledged were mere speculation when they testified about them before judges.

In future elections, these laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election. Further, these laws could entrench extended minority rule, violating the basic and longstanding democratic principle that parties that get the most votes should win elections.

The consequence of these voter suppression laws is that America may soon cease to be a democracy. In fact, the scholars argue that some states “no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”

Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana have already passed voter suppression laws that put their status as democracies into doubt. Texas is among the numerous states that is still considering laws to restrict voting.

What can be done?

The scholars argue that the federal government must step in to ensure equal access to the ballot box in order to maintain free and fair elections since state legislatures are moving to undermine democracy within their borders.

The federal government has a history of intervention in order to ensure that voting rights are upheld in jurisdictions where voter suppression is common – particularly in the South. These laws date back at least to Reconstruction and more recently with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The scholars write that Congress should pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, although they argue that that “alone is not enough.” They endorse suspending the filibuster in order to pass a new voting rights law and a “comprehensive set of national standards” to maintain election integrity.

They conclude the letter with a warning: “Our democracy is fundamentally at stake. History will judge what we do at this moment.”