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The US must safeguard voting or risk a full-blown constitutional crisis

Everybody knows what happened a year ago at the Capitol but we lack an understanding of ongoing threats to our democracy

Laleh Ispahani
6 January 2022, 12.00am
Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol building on 6 January, 2021
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Picture Architect / Alamy Stock Photo

As Washington focuses on what happened on 6 January last year, more attention must be paid to why such events took place. 

We need to understand not just the short-term planning and incitements that led to the Capitol riots, but the deeper waves of misplaced racial resentment and fake news that set this blight in motion and that continue to drive an epidemic of voter suppression and election sabotage across the US.

The tragic events that took place a year ago today, were in no small measure a backlash – to the 2008 election of America’s first Black president, the racial justice uprising that followed the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, and the emergence of multiracial democracy, evidenced by the surge in voting by people of color that helped drive meaningful change in the presidential election later in 2020. The latter was perhaps most notably seen in Georgia, which elected Raphael Warnock as its first Black senator and Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish statewide official in the state’s history. 

The backlash was swift, violent, deeply disturbing – and it did not end on 6 January. It continues, in efforts to discredit the 2020 election by a huge swath of Republicans who can’t face up to Trump’s defeat. The backlash is also evident in the wave of state legislatures racing to pass ever more surgical and cruel voter suppression measures, aimed at disenfranchising communities of color, and in attacks on teaching our history. It also persists in the form of congressional Republicans’ refusal to seriously consider taking meaningful steps to protect our election system – the very bedrock of our democracy – from such partisan and racist attacks.  

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This is no ordinary policy fight. This isn’t a good-faith disagreement about the best way to move the country forward. The refusal to pass even basic, common-sense measures to shore up the right to vote threatens the very rules of the road upon which a functioning democracy travels. 

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Wisconsin

Attacks on the franchise are nothing new. From poll taxes and literacy tests to lynching, segregated ballot boxes and assaults on the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression is as old as the republic itself. But the efforts now underway mark a new and menacing chapter in this shameful history – combining attacks on policy with attacks on personnel. Spurred on by Donald Trump’s dangerous lies, Republican legislators are combining efforts to restrict early voting, absentee balloting and other measures that have helped expand the electorate with plans to oust independent poll monitors and election officials, replacing them with partisan actors bent on ensuring Republican wins, no matter what the voters decide. 

The objective of changing the rules and the referees is to change the results. All of these extreme Right-wing efforts are trained at rigging an election system that has been proven to be fundamentally sound. Challenge after costly challenge, review after review, has yielded not one iota of significant impropriety anywhere in the country. The election results have been resoundingly affirmed by more than 60 courts. The irony: after years of falsely claiming voter fraud, Republicans are now hell-bent on perpetrating it, by sabotaging outcomes across the country. 

Wisconsin is perhaps one of the starkest examples of this ugly new attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the ballot box. Once considered progressive, the state today is engulfed in a grotesque partisan farce. The GOP-controlled legislature, copy-catting similar efforts in Arizona and Pennsylvania, has launched yet another probe of the 2020 results, stacked with Trump loyalists and champions of his sore-loser lies. Meanwhile, a county sheriff has pushed for criminal charges against members of a bipartisan election commission – because they took steps to make absentee voting in nursing homes easier during the pandemic. 

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Voting rights

To prevent such threats from becoming the new norm nationally, the Senate and White House must act urgently to protect and defend our system of voting. Adversaries are watching. Russia and China would like nothing more than to see the 2022 balloting descend into chaos and violence. A federal failure to safeguard voting rights will echo around the world and plunge this country into a full-blown constitutional crisis. 

Congress is currently debating the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The protections – widely popular, fair, inclusive and historically bipartisan – included in these measures demand action as soon as possible, which requires reforming the filibuster to pave the way for debate and a vote. And we need the White House and the Justice Department to make voting rights a top priority. Attorney General Garland’s speech this week was a step in the right direction. 

We need philanthropy and the civil society sector to do their part to boost civic participation, empower indigenous people and communities of color and help ensure their place at the table. And we should convene a democracy summit for the states, taking a page from the Biden administration’s recent global Summit for Democracy – one that results in lasting and meaningful pro-voter reforms at home. 

Building a truly multiracial democracy is hard. Other nations have struggled, as the US struggles today. But a genuine multiracial democracy would reflect this country’s founding constitutional principles. We have an opportunity to show the world that we can learn from the awful events at the Capitol a year ago and see them as a turning point for a national recommitment to democracy. Polls show a majority of Americans support the freedom to vote and believe in our democratic ideals. 

As we pause to contemplate 6 January, let us remember the spirit of 5 January 2021, when a stunning number of Georgians came together to make history at the polls. As Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., put it so eloquently, “let’s lift up those who are fighting for democracy, before turning to address those who are determined to destroy it.” 

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