We live in the midst of a great irony. On the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birthday, the US faces an angst-riddled reality when it comes to voting rights. According to the Pew Research Center, despite being in the midst of a global pandemic, in the 2020 presidential election, Americans voted in record numbers.

As has been reported ad nauseum since, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud anywhere. Yet, the former president and his supporters continue to pedal the claim that the 2020 Presidential election was rigged and therefore the “integrity of the voting process” needs to be protected. Despite countless court cases rejecting this argument, millions of Americans continue to believe it is true. As a result, there has been a concentrated—some would say orchestrated—effort to “safeguard” our elections. In 19 states, 33 laws have been passed that make it harder to vote, all in Republican controlled state legislatures. (More than 425 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.)

The most insidious aspect of these laws is that they give power to partisan operatives to challenge and even change (subvert) election results as they see fit. It is this double-edged approach to tilting the balance of election results in favor of Republicans that prompts Democrats to seek redress through federal legislation. The idea that this is even in discussion among lawmakers is deeply ironic—even offensive—as we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King who, along with Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, is perhaps the most recognized civil rights leader in world history. This should be a season to celebrate efforts that expand voter access for all, especially those in marginalized communities. And yet, here we are.

Politically, this is a crucial battle for Democrats, with their razor thin majorities in both houses of Congress. Purely from a messaging standpoint, Democrats—the gang who couldn’t shoot straight—are flailing. There being two bills that Democrats are promoting in Congress dilutes the appeal to voters. Why could lawmakers not have settled on a single bill and advocate for it? (Pop quiz: who can name both voting rights bills before the Senate?) Marketing 101 dictates that a single message—a single emphasis—is essential for success. Trying to push two separate bills causes confusion among voters. Further, by focusing on changing the filibuster rule rather than on the practical implications of limiting voter access devolves into procedural gobbledygook that confuses or disinterests voters.

Yet, those most heavily affected by this suppression/subversion tactic are women, people of color, poor people, people with disabilities and youth—all of whom form critical aspects of the Democratic coalition. If these votes are suppressed/subverted, the road to continued Democratic control of Congress becomes much steeper indeed.

It is in this both-and/double-whammy of suppression and subversion that make these 33 laws most ominous. It is where those who value freedom and inclusion of everyone in our electoral system see the most potential for harm. It is a new illustration of the old cliché, “they’ll get you coming and going”—coming into the polls where you can’t vote by mail, you can’t distribute water to those waiting on long lines, you can’t vote on Sundays, drop boxes are dramatically reduced, especially in minority neighborhoods (suppression)—and going, where if the results are not acceptable to those in power, there are all kinds of new vehicles to subvert election outcomes if they run counter to those in power (subversion).

Doctor King would be saddened that more than a half-century after his death, the battles for justice and equality in this country as expressed in access to free and fair elections seem to have advanced little beyond the sit-ins, boycotts and protest marches of his day.

(answer to the pop quiz: The Freedom to Vote Act and The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

What would the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act do? Named for the late congressman from Georgia, this act aims to reverse a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law required several states with a history of voting rights discrimination, largely in the South, to get preclearance from the Department of Justice for any changes to voting laws. The Lewis act would restore the requirement and update the formula used to determine which states must get preclearance.

What would the Freedom to Vote Act do? It is the more sweeping measure of the two, and would affect everything from the way congressional districts are drawn to how campaigns are financed.

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