Jack DeVine / January 18, 2022

American Voting Rights: The Rest of the Story

Partisan election controversies have been dogging us for years; a shiny new federal voting law won’t make them go away.

If you’d just arrived from another planet and then sampled a bit of print, televised, and Internet news, you’d probably surmise that the political landscape in the U.S. looks something like this:

In 2020, the American electorate had had enough of Donald Trump’s four years of tempestuous leadership; they tossed him out of office in favor of the more temperate Joe Biden.

But Trump didn’t go quietly. He cooked up a tale — call it The Big Lie — that the election had been stolen, and he incited his right-wing-extremist followers to launch a violent insurrection in the hopes of keeping himself in power. They very nearly succeeded.

And we haven’t seen the last of right-wing extremism. Republican-led states across the nation, falling back on their racist roots, have passed new voting legislation intended to suppress minority voting and revive their prospects in future elections. Failing that, watch out for more insurrections.

Last week, President Biden sounded the alarm in the starkest terms. Our nation is in peril, at an historical inflection point. The only way to save democracy is to pass new voting rights legislation that will restore election integrity nationwide. It’s imperative; if we must change U.S. Senate rules to do so, so be it.

Some readers may think that the above is an exaggeration. It’s not. It’s standard fare, the narrative pushed incessantly by the president himself, administration leadership, and mainstream media. Loaded words like “racism,” “extremism,” and “voter suppression” are used — inaccurately — every day.

But those of us not from outer space and who have been paying attention are well aware of the broader picture — “the rest of the story,” as longtime radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say.

Federal elections have been in turmoil, with widespread dissatisfaction and distrust, for decades.

  • The 2000 Bush vs. Gore election was furiously contested and ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Throughout George W. Bush’s first term, the popular line was that he was “selected, not elected.”

  • Numerous congressional elections have been subjected to challenges and tedious recounts; several have been overturned.

  • In 2016, upstart politician Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. To this day, Clinton and many of her supporters insist that that election was stolen, and Democrats spent the entirety of Trump’s term in office attempting to unseat him, first via the Russia-collusion investigations and then by two impeachments.

  • In Georgia, “voting rights” advocate Stacey Abrams still has not conceded defeat in the 2020 gubernatorial election. She attributes her loss to voter suppression, despite record minority turnout.

In short: Our election turmoil is not driven by inadequate voting regulation. It has nothing to do with systemic racism, and the new state laws do not target or suppress minority voters. It’s not all about Trump — the 2020 election controversy was one among many. January 6 was a violent riot, not an insurrection. We did not almost lose our democracy that day, and the nation is not in great peril from similar assaults by right-wing extremists.

No, our problem with elections, and a real cause of eroding democracy, is naked partisanship — in every case, the product of politicians vastly more concerned with partisan advantage than the good of the nation.

That won’t be fixed, and public confidence in future election results will not be improved, by a shiny new 735-page federal law — a one-size-fits-all election process mandated for the entire nation and supervised by the federal government.

Nor will Joe Biden’s insulting and divisive rhetoric help solve that problem.

The U.S. Constitution, including amendments directly addressing voting rights, along with the 1965 Voting Rights Act (also as amended) clearly define and effectively protect all American citizens’ right to vote. Mr. Biden’s proposed voting legislation is a federal overreach, both unnecessary and broadly inconsistent with the federalist principles on which our government structure is based. We’re far better off without it.

As of this week, it seems clear that the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act will die in the U.S. Senate thanks to the dogged unwillingness of two Democrat senators (along with 50 Republicans) to eliminate the filibuster rule. Democrats should set aside their anger at Senators Manchin and Sinema and instead thank them for preempting a suicidal lemming-like Democrat march over the cliff just in time for the very possible loss of their congressional majority in the midterm elections.

How do we combat the hyper-partisanship that is destroying our nation from within? It’s a daunting challenge, and we continue to fall short. But surely the first step is to recognize it as a central problem and choose our leaders accordingly.

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