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By Joseph R. Fitzgerald, PhD

Since the passing of civil rights leader Gloria Richardson in July at the age of 99, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the myriad subjects we discussed while I worked her biography. One was voting rights, a subject of special resonance today because the Republican Party is in a wholescale effort at the state level to disenfranchise millions of citizens.

Despite their claims to the contrary, Republicans are in fact engaged in political Jim Crow 2.0 and it shows by just how careful they are to make sure their state election laws don’t explicitly name Black and Indigenous peoples, and communities of color as their targets. White supremacist “redeemers” used this same “color-blind” language to disenfranchise Black men in the post-Reconstruction era. The tactic was so insidious and pervasive that only congressional legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, could begin to overturn the century of disenfranchisement policies and practices.

Raised in a political family, Gloria Richardson had an especially insightful understanding of how politicians exert power to advance their agenda. Her maternal grandfather was an elected member of Cambridge, Maryland’s city council, and he taught her that compromise is a basic part of politics. Therefore, politicians had to be willing to negotiate with people both within and outside their own party if they wanted to serve the greater good.

Today’s Democratic Party is dealing with this political reality as they consider two voting rights bills; the “For the People Act” (H.R. 1 and S. 1.) and “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.” Both are generally excellent bills that have some items that may be removed, or negotiated, without ever compromising citizens’ right to cast ballots in free and fair elections.

For example, Democrats can live without a finalized bill that doesn’t include the creation of publicly funded presidential campaigns, increased transparency of campaign donations, and presidential candidates being required to disclose their tax returns, as “For the People Act” currently stipulates. Why? Because these wouldn’t actually affect people’s right to vote.

Another area for intra-party agreement is the “preclearance” mechanism of the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.” This concerns which jurisdictions will have their voting laws scrutinized by the Department of Justice to ensure that they don’t suppress voter’s rights. Some Democrats want preclearance to be limited, while others, including Senator Joe Manchin, argue that preclearance should cover the entire nation. This issue isn’t new. When legislators were debating the Voting Rights Act in 1965, a senator from Illinois favored a targeted use of preclearance, saying “he idea is to send the firewagon where the fire is.” Gloria Richardson found this line of thinking naïve. She knew that racists’ disenfranchisement tactics were a national problem, a reality acknowledged by the fact that in 2013 the Voting Right’s Act covered not just most of the southern states but also Alaska and Arizona, and numerous counties in California, Michigan, New York, and South Dakota. As Richardson put it: “Blacks lived everywhere so why not everywhere?”

To be sure, national preclearance would be a monumental job for the DOJ, and it’s one reason why congressional Republicans support it; they think it will paralyze the DOJ’s ability to enforce it. Nevertheless, preclearance could be enforced and so Democrats should not fear supporting it because the GOP hopes it would advance their disenfranchisement agenda.

It’s possible that the Democratic Party cannot come to an agreement on which voter protection provisions should be included in a finalized bill and if that happens they’ll be allowing state-level Republicans to effectively rig the upcoming mid-term and presidential elections. Democrats’ only other tool at their disposal to limit the impact of the GOP’s election rigging would be to enforce Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which permits Congress to reduce a state’s delegations to the House if their state “denied…, or in any way abridged” the voting rights of citizens. This is precisely what the GOP is attempting to do. Incidentally, this section was never enforced during the Jim Crow era. Therefore, racists disenfranchised Black, Brown, and Indigenous voters for generations, crimes that were stopped only when the Voting Rights Act was passed and enforced.

If congressional Democrats are conflicted about what they should support in a national voting rights bill, and whether they should enforce Sec. 2 of the 14th Amendment, I encourage them to think of Gloria Richardson. One of the things I learned from her is that this nation can never be a truly democratic one if any group’s rights are not protected and enforced, including their right to vote in free and fair elections. Our nation needs a strong, comprehensive, and nationally enforced voting rights bill. Anything less would effectively be a compromise on citizens’ rights, and that’s something Richardson would have never done.

Joseph R. Fitzgerald, PhD, author of The Struggle Is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation (Univ. Press of KY, 2018).

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