Black attorneys general lead the fight for voting rights
The release of a compromise bill on voting rights by eight Senate Democrats, coupled with the recent passage of John Lewis’s Advancement of Voting Rights Act in the House, is a small but promising step in the fight for voting rights. As negotiations in Congress unfold, we must keep our eyes on the prize and continue to defend the right to vote. And as black attorneys general, we continue to fight these racist, age-old voter suppression bills whether or not federal legislation succeeds.
According to a July 2021 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, state lawmakers introduced more than 400 bills in more than 49 states with restrictive voting provisions during the 2021 legislative sessions. More dangerously, at least 18 states like Arizona, Arkansas and Montana have passed and enacted restrictive voting laws that make postal voting and early voting more difficult.
Georgia’s recently passed legislation, SB 202, is particularly egregious as it targets the forms of voting widely used among black Georgians. This is why we recently carried out a brief friend with 22 other state attorneys general in support of the US Department of Justice trial challenge the status of Georgia.
We can all agree that states should promote free and fair elections, and that states have the flexibility to administer elections in a way that ensures voter confidence. What states cannot do, however, is use a seemingly innocuous explanation – like “electoral integrity” – as a smokescreen for discrimination. And you don’t have to be a lawyer to see Georgia’s law for what it is: a contrived effort to limit the votes of black voters.
How do we know? A few ways.
The political context in which Georgia adopted this law is important. For the first time in more than 20 years, Peach State elected a Democratic president and two Democratic U.S. senators. And how did the legislator react?
By enacting legislation that places additional barriers – with surgical precision – on black Georgians’ preferred methods of voting (i.e. postal voting and postal voting). If the legislature was serious about building voter confidence in the political system, it could have broadened access and promoted election integrity, as California, Nevada, Vermont, and Utah have all done.
For example, since 2001 California has offered all voters the option of permanent postal voting. Nevada and Vermont require that every active and registered voter receive a mail-in ballot. Even Utah is holding mail-order elections and did so long before the pandemic, all without the risk of fraud.
All of this suggests that Georgia’s bill was drafted to target black voters. There is a decades-old mistaken belief that there must always be “smoky” evidence of discriminatory intent. As black lawyers who have fought against discrimination, we know firsthand that racism in the real world rarely manifests in this way. Fortunately, the courts have recognized this as well. And under close scrutiny, it is evident that Georgia’s legislature intended to reject black votes.
History confirms it. Across the country, we see Republicans continually claiming that “2021 is not 1965”.
We couldn’t agree more.
In fact, as black attorneys general, we are living proof that this country has made progress since 1965. We would be doing the protesters who marched in Washington and Selma a disservice by saying that we have made no progress. But we are doing them a disservice by pretending that every state has accepted the principle of multiracial democracy. If so, lawmakers would stop fooling the public with one of the oldest racial dog whistles in the book.
Since the Reconstruction, “stopping electoral fraud” has been used repeatedly as an excuse to enact restrictive electoral laws, although the myth of widespread electoral fraud has been repeatedly debunked. But don’t take our word for it.
For example, we cite in our brief a Heritage Foundation study in five states with a universal postal vote that found only 29 cases of fraudulent postal votes and only 24 cases of duplicate voting or postal fraud, on nearly 50 million. votes cast. Likewise, the short lifespan of former President Trump commission to investigate voter fraud after the abrupt closure of the 2016 election after being unable to find any evidence of the alleged problem.
We hope that the Ministry of Justice – and, ultimately, black Georgians – will get their account in court. And more broadly, we hope that courts across the country will respect the sacred right to vote.
But today the struggle against artificial attempts to turn back the clock continues. We have come too far to go back now.
Karl A. Racine is the Attorney General for the District of Columbia.
Letitia James is Attorney General of New York.