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To protect democracy, the US must protect voters

The clear signs of rampant voter suppression across the country underscore the need for a new Voting Rights Act.

Residents vote at a polling place in the Midtown neighborhood of Milwaukee on Monday. It was the first day of early voting in Wisconsin, which is considered a battleground state for the 2020 presidential election.Scott Olson/Getty

With early voting underway in many states, signs of rampant voter suppression are lighting up the map of the country: Georgia’s long lines have left people waiting for hours to vote; North Carolina’s convoluted mail-in rules have confused voters and resulted in rejected ballots; and Texas’s limit of one absentee drop-off box per county has only made it more inconvenient to cast a ballot.

Republicans have made clear that they have no intention of passing new federal laws to protect people’s right to vote. After John Lewis passed away in July, this editorial board called on Congress to honor the late congressman’s life and legacy by restoring the Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately — and unsurprisingly — Washington failed to act because Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring a voting rights bill that was sitting on his desk to a vote on the Senate floor.


McConnell has dubbed these kinds of election reforms Democratic “power grabs.” But improving ballot access is not a “power grab.” It’s defending a core principle of American democracy.

Democrats, then, should make protecting and expanding voting rights a top priority at the state level and, if they win House and Senate majorities in November, at the federal level, too. These measures should increase the number of polling locations, put automatic voter registration in place, and unconditionally reinstate the right to vote for former felons.

The need for new voter protections only grew more urgent with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month. President Trump’s nominee to replace her, Amy Coney Barrett, harbors views that could jeopardize voting rights for millions of Americans in the decades to come if she is confirmed. In a dissent in a case before the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit last year, she argued that voting rights belong “only to virtuous citizens” — suggesting felons can be permanently disenfranchised after serving their sentence, even as she contended that they can’t permanently lose the right to possess a firearm. As Matt Ford wrote in The New Republic, “As a dissent in a Seventh Circuit panel decision, her reasoning had no broader impact on Americans or their right to cast a ballot. As part of a Supreme Court opinion, it would have become the law of the land.”


And since the Supreme Court defanged the Voting Rights Act in 2013 by undermining federal oversight of new election laws passed in jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression, Republicans across the country have ramped up their discriminatory voter suppression tactics. Over 1,600 polling locations have closed, mostly in jurisdictions with large Black and brown populations, and many states have instituted strict voter ID laws or scrapped laws that made it easier to vote.

Even as the coronavirus pandemic imposed new challenges for voters — such as potentially risking their health if they vote in person — some states have still refused to increase ballot access by expanding mail-in voting. Carol Anderson, an African American studies professor at Emory University and author of “One Person, No Vote,” told the Globe editorial board that she is seeing “a frantic effort to stop as many American citizens from voting as possible in the midst of the pandemic.”


Oftentimes, narratives about low voter turnout focus on citizens’ supposed apathy rather than the ways governments have discouraged people from voting by making the process too difficult. “That tendency to flip the onus solely on the citizen for the barriers that the state has put up helps feed the state’s lack of accountability,” Anderson said. That’s why new voter protections should include measures such as automatic voter registration, so people don’t have to deal with deadlines or website crashes, and an increase in polling locations, so people don’t have to wait in line for more than 10 hours to vote.

Democracy has been under attack in more ways than one — but central to its gradual decline has been a decades-long effort to reduce the voting power of Black, brown, and poor Americans. If the US has any hope of rebuilding and strengthening its democratic institutions, it has to begin by handing power to the people and finally ensuring that everyone who wants to vote can do so, no matter their race, class, or creed. Anything short of that will all but guarantee minority rule in this next chapter of American history.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.