August 19, 2021

On Tuesday, Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL) introduced H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021. In 1965, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to protect the right to vote in America. That law was reauthorized on a bipartisan basis as recently as 2006. 

But in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a vital piece of the Voting Rights Act, the piece requiring that the Department of Justice approve proposed changes in election rules in states with a history of racial discrimination before they went into effect. Immediately, states began to restrict access to the ballot. Then in July 2021, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court decided that rules that impacted different populations unequally were not unfair. This decision opened the door wide to different forms of voter suppression. 

What is at stake is that the Republican Party has become so extreme it can win elections only by rigging the system. When the 2020 election showed that Democrats could overcome even that year’s voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the outsized weight of rural states in the Electoral College, 18 Republican-dominated states passed 30 new, extreme voter suppression laws and, in Georgia, cleared the way for partisan appointees to replace nonpartisan election officials. 

If Republican operatives can cement their control over those states despite the will of the voters, they can control the government—likely including the presidency—from their minority position. 

The outrageousness of this reality has been hitting home in the last month as states dominated by Republican governors in the mold of former president Donald Trump are opposing vaccine requirements and mask mandates even as the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus burns across the country. Areas where Trump is popular have a much smaller proportion of their population vaccinated than areas dominated by Democrats, mapping a deadly virus along political lines. And those deadly lines are affecting children.

Governors in Texas, Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah have all banned mask mandates in schools, despite the safety recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Florida is experiencing its highest levels of infection in the course of the pandemic, and Texas governor Greg Abbott, who himself has had a breakthrough case of Covid-19, has requested 2500 healthcare workers from out of state, but both states continue to oppose mask or vaccine mandates. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold funds from schools that require masks. Abbott has threatened those who require masks with fines. Rather than encourage the use of masks and promote the free, effective vaccine, Florida and Texas officials have instead opened clinics to provide treatment with monoclonal antibodies for those suffering from the effects of Covid-19.

Republican rejection of masks and vaccines in the midst of a pandemic means that the politicians who are demanding the exposure of their citizens—including children, who are not yet eligible for vaccination—to a deadly virus are quite demonstrably members of the party that is trying to skew the machinery of our government in their favor. And, also quite demonstrably, they do not represent the majority of Americans, who do, in fact, favor vaccines and mask mandates. An Axios/Ipsos poll from two days ago shows that 69% of Americans would like to see mask mandates in public places.

It doesn’t take a poll to see that public opinion has turned against the anti-maskers. 

Yesterday, the board of the largest school district in Florida and the fourth largest in the country, Miami-Dade County, voted 7–1 in favor of a mask mandate, in defiance of DeSantis's executive order preventing schools from mandating masks in order to "protect parents' freedom to choose whether their children wear masks." Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho had vowed to follow the science of the issue. "For the consequences associated with doing the right thing, whatever that right thing is, I will wear proudly as a badge of honor," he said.

Businesses, too, are lining up behind vaccinations. Amtrak, Microsoft, BlackRock, Delta, Facebook, Google, United Airlines, and Walmart have all announced vaccine mandates, and Uber Eats cut ties with former NFL player Jay Cutler over his anti-mask tweets. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, generally aligned with the right wing, are all requiring that anyone entering their offices show proof of vaccination. 

Yesterday, Biden directed the Education Department to “use all available tools” to aid local governments trying to work around governors like DeSantis and Abbott. "We're not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children," he said.

Some of the same groups who oppose masks and are attacking their pro-masking neighbors were among those who attacked the country on January 6. In Missouri today, where the death rate from Covid-19 is among the worst in the country, Alabama-based anti-vaxxer Christopher Key told workers at a Walmart pharmacy that they “could be executed” for administering vaccines, a street level violence that mirrors that of the Capitol insurrection. That overlap highlights the growing extremism of the current Republican Party.

How extreme the party has become was made clear today when a fervent Trump supporter who called for the removal of all Democrats from office, 49-year-old Floyd Ray Roseberry of Grover, North Carolina, threatened to bomb the Capitol. He live-streamed his prospective attack from his truck, reciting a litany of complaints that echoed the right-wing news media. While antigovernment radicals have been a part of our national landscape since 1861, what made this particular attacker stand out was that Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL) appeared to defend him. 

“I understand citizenry anger directed at dictatorial Socialism and its threat to liberty, freedom and the very fabric of American society,” Brooks stated. “The way to stop Socialism’s march is for patriotic Americans to fight back in the 2022 and 2024 elections…. Bluntly stated, America’s future is at risk.” Brooks also spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally before the January 6 insurrection.

In the midst of a growing insurgency of a minority that is illustrating its willingness to sacrifice our children on the altar of ideology, stopping those extremists from manipulating the machinery of elections to seize control of the country has become imperative. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is an attempt to restore a level playing field. It expands federal voting protections to all 50 states, providing oversight of any state or local government that has had repeated election violations. It would also stop more subtle voter suppression rules, as well as stopping courts from changing election rules that disfranchise voters during an election—all methods of shifting an election that tend to suppress minority votes. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi greeted the introduction of H.R. 4 enthusiastically, noting that “Democrats are fighting back against an anti-democratic tide, protecting access to the ballot box for every American.” Sewell added a defense of federal protection of the right to vote in the face of state attempts to take away that right: “Today, old battles have become new again as we face the most pernicious assault on the right to vote in generations,” said Sewell. “It’s clear: federal oversight is urgently needed.”

The House will take up the bill when it returns from break on August 23, but the fate of the bill will likely be determined in the Senate, where, so far, only one Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, is likely to support it. The bill will die there unless Senate Democrats agree to a carve out that enables them to pass it without facing a filibuster, which would enable the Republicans to kill it.