There is perceptible anger in the United States over how a few Republican State Houses are going about their versions of the Voting Rights Bill, intended to ostensibly provide a clean mechanism for electors to exercise their constitutional rights.
The state of Georgia took the first step in passing a sweeping bill that has been billed “un-American” and “sick” by the President of the United States, Joseph Biden. The President has also made the point that attempts of Georgia State House and Senate, along with similar measures contemplated by states like Texas and Arizona are not only unacceptable but “despicable” as well.
The attempts to tamper with voting rights in the name of providing credibility and transparency to the voting process goes back to the former President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 November elections, on the false charge that widespread fraud had taken place — a preposterous statement that even his own Justice Department did not want to entertain.
In fact, Trump and his supporters filed as many as 60 cases in different courts and each one was tossed out. The so-called ‘setting right the things’ now has to be seen in the context of the blatant lie foisted by Trump and his allies that the last Presidential election was “stolen”.
“What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is. It’s sick. It’s sick”, Biden said at his first Presidential news conference held after sixty-five days in office. “I’m not talking about election officials — I’m talking about voters. Voters”, the President added.
What has added to the extreme discomfiture of the White House and the administration is that the Georgia initiative has sought to bring back a number of restrictions reminiscent of the Jim Crow days of segregationist policies of the South in the 1860s, which had deeply impacted African Americans and minorities.
Not only did Georgia elected officials voted (on party lines) to curtail mail in voting, they have limited ballot drop boxes and cut down on how long polling stations can remain open. They have also prohibited and made it illegal to offer food and water to people waiting to cast their ballots.
In fact, Democrats argue that if lines are long it has to do with Republican officials, who had deliberately cut polling sites in predominantly African American neighbourhoods.
According to Biden, the laws enacted by Republicans and those contemplated are worse than the Jim Crow era laws that institutionalised racism in America. Democrats fear a group of Red States may go along with Georgia, Texas and Arizona and start targeting big cities that have a large swathe of Democrat voters, especially minorities; and hence the pressure is on President Biden to come up with federal initiatives at the House of Representatives and the Senate to ensure attempts at the states’ level can be curtailed.
The Biden White House is quite aware of what is in store in the Senate by way of the filibuster process, in which 60 Senators are needed to push major legislations. Biden has said that he is relenting on his opposition to drop filibuster but has not spelt out his game plan. But the urgency for the Senate to act on a major Voting Rights Bill proposed by the House is for all to see: Republican Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia signed the law barely a few hours after his state legislators acted and in a closed door ceremony!
If Georgia Republicans have set the ball rolling, it is not without good reason. The Grand Old Party is still smarting from the loss of the southern stronghold which it had under its hold since 1992. Further, the victory of two Democrats in the run-off Senate elections in January 2021 meant that the Upper Chamber has now come under the control of the Democrats, by virtue of the Vice President Kamala Harris holding the vital tie-breaking vote.
The game plan of the right wing and extremist Republicans is to keep up the bogey of a fraudulent 2020 election well into the mid-term elections of 2022 and the Presidential election of 2024. The fact that a majority of Trump loyalists believe that their “Man” had won last November helps the Grand Old Party in terms of votes and collection plate. And this irrespective of whether Trump is in the fray for the 2024 elections or the kind of candidates he is going to throw his weight behind in 2022.
The Biden administration is indeed facing the first major challenge of its times. Expressions of outrage alone will not be enough. Even at the time of campaigning, Biden made it clear that one of his priorities is to heal America, where race relations are seen to be hurting. The 21st century Jim Crow kind of laws will not only undermine the few gains in the past decades but also push confidence of African Americans and minorities to an all-time low.
(A former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations, the author is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.)
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