Together, the rumpled white conservative from Wisconsin and the Black congressman from Georgia, who had his skull clubbed on a Selma bridge just for peacefully demanding his right to vote, walked from the House side of the US Capitol to the Senate floor. They were making good trouble.
Representatives James Sensenbrenner and John Lewis wheeled a cart containing some 12,000 pages of transcripts from public hearings they conducted leading up to the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, considered by many to be the most extensive congressional fact-finding in support of any legislation.
These transcripts documented thousands of present-day examples of how the VRA — especially crucial “pre-clearance” provisions, which prevented localities with a history of racial prejudice in voting laws from changing those rules without approval — protected voters against efforts modernized from the Jim Crow playbook.
How times have changed. This month, every Senate Republican except one joined a filibuster to prevent a voting rights bill named after Lewis — which would have restored the pre-clearance provisions and other protections struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013 — from coming to a vote. That followed its complete rejection by every Republican when it passed the US House earlier this summer on a party-line vote.
The 2006 reauthorization occurred just 15 years ago. Now Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about election fraud is Republican orthodoxy. In state after state, despite providing no evidence of fraud, Republicans have enacted new voter ID laws, voter purges, precinct closures, restrictions on early voting, additional burdens on voter registration, and more, that studies show, again and again, disproportionately affect voters of color. And in Congress, the anti-majoritarian filibuster and the GOP near-total blockade make action impossible.
Things changed with the 2008 Democratic wave that elected the nation’s first Black president and a Democratic supermajority in the US Senate, and demonstrated the growing political power of an increasingly diverse and multiracial nation. Republicans could have responded by competing for those votes but chose a countervailing strategy instead: redistricting. A handful of GOP strategists understood that a 2010 sweep of key swing-state legislatures, on the eve of the decennial remapping that follows the census, could be more consequential than the historic 2008 election.
That fall, the GOP’s Redistricting Majority Project — REDMAP — targeted 107 state legislative seats in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida. After they took control, they packed Democrats and Black voters into as few districts as possible, and effectively resegregated legislative districts on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. As the nation became more urban and multiracial, political power flowed to the GOP’s older, rural, and conservative base even as it shrank.
The impact was immediate and endures to this day. In 2012, Obama carried Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But in those states’ remapped US House districts? Republicans won 64 of 94 seats. These maps have proved voter-proof for a decade: After the 2018 midterms, 59 million Americans lived in a state where Republicans controlled one or both chambers of the state legislature even though Democratic candidates received more votes — sometimes hundreds of thousands more.
“The redistricting changed the dynamic on the ground,” former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele told me. “The type of person who would then get out and run for these seats was a very different breed of person. When they amassed in the Congress . . . they were the Freedom Caucus.” When Sensenbrenner and Lewis tried to update the Voting Rights Act formula after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, new House caucus leaders not only opposed it but also threatened to set “the forces of evil” loose on anyone who broke GOP ranks, Sensenbrenner told me.
In state legislatures, those forces were already hard at work enacting draconian new voter ID bills. The Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision that ended pre-clearance only turbocharged those efforts in Texas, where lawmakers passed a bill that required the very identification that some 600,000 registered Latino voters lacked. In gerrymandered Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the legislatures ignored pleas to allow a crush of 2020 mail-in votes to be opened and processed early, slowing down results and giving oxygen to the Big Lie. These legislatures also felt free to ignore voters’ wishes on voting rights, for example, by disregarding new rules crafted in Ohio to restrict partisan gerrymandering and in Florida to end felony disenfranchisement.
Meanwhile, in states gerrymandered by Republicans, they wanted not only to pen Democrats into a handful of districts, but also to place barriers that would make it harder for those voters to be heard in statewide and presidential races. Restrictive new voting laws from gerrymandered legislatures in Arizona and Georgia could tip 2022 secretary of state races to candidates who believe Trump’s fraud conspiracies. Gerrymandered legislatures may also look to reallocate Electoral College votes by gerrymandered congressional districts, or send competing slates to the Capitol, as Trump’s team wanted to happen on Jan. 6.
Only five seats separate the two parties in Congress. The wildly aggressive gerrymanders being drawn nationwide right now could determine the balance of power for the next decade, regardless of popular will. In Texas, where 95 percent of population growth has been driven by people of color, the new congressional map manages to expand white political power, decreasing the number of Latino seats from eight to seven, and eliminating the only Black majority seat. Republicans have wiped away once-competitive seats in Oklahoma, New Hampshire, and Indiana, and are expected to do the same in Kentucky, Kansas, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Extreme gerrymandering, the war on voting rights, and the rural edge in the Senate and Electoral College threaten a long shadow of entrenched Republican minority rule. America’s democracy is quickly being stripped away. And voters are powerless to reverse it.
David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”