Worried about the new Jim Crow? There’s a solution

American democracy is at a crossroads. Legislators in 43 states have introduced voter suppression bills that, if enacted, would amount to the most far-reaching setbacks for voter participation in well over a century, all based upon the Big Lie that the 2020 election was infected by fraud. But the House just showed us another way by passing HR 1. This voter protection bill offers expanded freedom to vote building on the historic turnout of the 2020 election. Its fate now rests with the Senate. 

As attorneys general who defend voting rights in our jurisdictions and nationally, and a former White House ethics czar who has worked on these issues for decades, we urge him and the Senate to take this path to equitable, inclusive elections.

Nationwide, states are debating more than 250 voting restriction bills that all pursue the same fundamental strategy: giving one party an advantage in elections by making it harder for communities of color to cast their ballots. And they have made no bones about their intent. Take it from Senator Lindsey Graham, who declared that he was going to investigate mail-in voting because “if we don’t do something about voting by mail, we’re going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country.” 

Bills trying to end equal opportunity mail-in voting

We can see what that “something” looks like in Georgia, where restrictive anti-voting bills are quickly advancing through the state’s legislatures. The main state senate vehicle, SB 241, would end equal opportunity mail-in voting and add highly restrictive witness requirements. There’s no need for that kind of thing except to limit certain votes. A Michael Carvin admitted as much just this week in a U.S. Supreme Court argument over a similar restriction in Arizona, saying “it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game.” 

The main Georgia house bill, HB 531, offers a similar tale. It would restrict drop box access and eliminate early voting on Sundays. That would block Black churches from organizing “Souls to the Polls,” their get-out-the-vote drives — all while imposing new identification requirements. According to recent analysis by the Brennan Center, Black voters accounted for 36.5% of those voting in person on Sunday in Georgia in 2020 compared to 26.8% of those who voted on other days of the week.

Voting on June 2, 2020, in Hiawatha, Iowa. (Photo: Jim Slosiarek/AP)

HR 1 offers a stark alternative to this regression to Jim Crow, building on the best and most effective practices from states around the country — red and blue — to strengthen our multiracial, inclusive democracy. It offers automatic voter registration, equal access to mail-in balloting, and same day voter registration. It requires states to provide voters with access to drop boxes on a per capita basis, starting 45 days before elections. It also would mandate early voting periods, including weekend voting, while prohibiting witness signature requirements and making it harder to purge voters from voter rolls.

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For those concerned with fraud and safety, this bill would modernize and strengthen our elections against attacks through the use of mandated threat assessments, security requirements for voting machines, and audit requirements. And for those who recognize big money has too much influence in our elections, the bill creates a small donor matching system—offering civic-minded folks who give a few dollars to a campaign a metaphorical megaphone so their voices aren’t drowned out by wealthier interests.

In all of that, HR 1 would shatter the hundreds of proposed barriers to racially equitable voter participation that some factions of legislators are introducing in state houses across the country. Without it, ensuring future elections are fully fair and free will continue to be an uphill climb. 

We attorney generals just want to see fair policies

That is why 21 state or local attorneys general — including the two writing this — support swift passage of the bill.  As chief legal and law enforcement officers in our jurisdictions, we want to see just and fair policies put forth that ensure election results reflect the will of all eligible voters, so that we, the people, have the power to make our communities stronger. Though we acknowledge HR 1 won’t put an end to all voter repression, it is a critical first step. The next one rests in HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — a badly needed reinforcement of the Voting Rights Act. We also tip our hats to President Biden for his executive order this weekend instructing federal agencies to take steps to better support voter registration and other election-related advances.

Between those federal actions, good state bills that seek to enhance the freedom to vote, and the bipartisan state and local leaders who worked so tirelessly to run the most secure election in history this past go around, we can make our democracy stronger than ever. 

There’s no time to wait while state-level suppression bills gain steam. The Senate’s anti-majoritarian filibuster rules should not stand in the way of HR1’s consideration. They have a long history of propping up racist policies, and if they clear the way for a new wave of voter suppression disproportionately targeting Black and brown Americans, that shameful history will add a new chapter. Budget reconciliation is effectuated by a simple majority vote — doesn’t the very foundation of our democracy as expressed in HR 1 deserve the same? Thankfully, when Senator Joe Manchin was just asked about this, he suggested that if all else fails, he might be open to handling the bill via a 51-vote threshold.

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The American people have demonstrated in the 2020 election and in the time since that they want and need many of the changes proposed in HR 1. The expansion in voting access last fall allowed us to break records for participation. Those new records are a sign of a democracy gaining vitality. The Senate should act to ensure we can keep breaking them in the elections to come. 

Brian Frosh (@BrianFrosh) is the attorney general for Maryland. Karl Racine (@AGKarlRacine) is the attorney general for the District of Columbia. Norman Eisen (@NormEisen), a former ambassador to the Czech Republic and ethics czar to President Barack Obama, was special impeachment counsel to the House Judiciary Committee Democrats in 2019-20 and is the Voter Protection Program Chair.

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