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Jesse Jackson attends a voting rights rally

Rev. Jesse Jackson rallies with supporters during a Poor People's Campaign march on Capitol Hill on August 2, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As Fascist GOP Threat Grows, Dems Verge on Historic Failure to Secure Voting Rights

"Mark my words," warned former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "If we don't pass the For the People Act, the GOP is going to gerrymander their way to a House majority—and they may never give it up."

Jake Johnson

The window for action to protect voting rights from the GOP's nationwide assault is rapidly closing as Democrats—despite controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House—fail to take the steps necessary to pass federal legislation that would expand ballot access, restore the gutted Voting Rights Act of 1965, and end partisan gerrymandering.

"Tick tock, folks. Kill the filibuster. Pass the For the People Act. End gerrymandering. And do it now. Or we all know what's coming."
—Ezra Levin, Indivisible

Progressive warnings about the implications of continued inaction on voting rights have grown increasingly dire in recent weeks as state governments—nearly two dozen of which are completely dominated by Republicans—prepare to redraw their 10-year congressional maps for upcoming elections and implement new ballot restrictions.

On Thursday, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that next week it will release key demographic data four days earlier than expected, meaning congressional Democrats now have even less time to pass legislation banning the kinds of partisan, anti-democratic gerrymandering tactics that Republicans have used for years to manipulate district boundaries for political gain. The redistricting process could be over in "a matter of weeks," according to one expert.

In a June column raising alarm about the Republican Party's relentless and increasingly authoritarian attacks on voting rights, Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn noted that "when Donald Trump was in the White House, there was much debate about whether or not he could be called a fascist in the full sense of the word, and not merely as a political insult."

"His presidency showed many of the characteristics of a fascist dictatorship, except the crucial one of automatic re-election," Cockburn noted. "But Trump or Trump-like leaders may not have to face this democratic impediment in future. It was only this year that the final building blocks have been put in place by Republicans as they replicate the structure of fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s."

"Two strategies, though never entirely absent from Republican behavior in the past, have become far more central to their approach. One is a greater willingness to use or tolerate violence against their opponents," Cockburn wrote, pointing to the January 6 insurrection. "The other change among Republicans is much less commented on, but is more sinister and significant. This is the systematic Republican takeover of the electoral machinery that oversees elections and makes sure that they are fair."

One potential foil to the GOP's sweeping voter suppression efforts—and its attempts to seize control of previously independent local election boards—is the House-passed For the People Act, which would ban partisan gerrymandering and help neutralize Republicans' state-level assault on ballot access by establishing strong federal election standards.

"Mark my words," Robert Reich, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, tweeted Thursday. "If we don't pass the For the People Act, the GOP is going to gerrymander their way to a House majority—and they may never give it up."

But the bill is at growing risk of winding up in the Senate's legislative graveyard if the chamber's Democratic majority refuses to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster, an archaic rule the Republicans wielded last month to block debate on the popular measure. With Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) still vocally opposed to altering the filibuster, Senate Democrats are short of the 50 votes they need to scrap or weaken the rule.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Senate Democrats are discussing the possibility of holding a second vote on a "narrower" version of the For the People Act before breaking for summer recess next week.

"Yet there is no signal that Republicans will be any more willing to join Democrats in advancing the revised legislation—meaning that any vote will constitute a further exercise in persuading Democratic holdouts to eliminate or modify the filibuster," the Post noted. "Bearing down on the Democrats are the preparations for the 2022 midterm elections—including the drawing of new House district lines based on the results of the 2020 Census. That has sparked warnings from advocates of stronger federal voting rights laws, who say Congress needs to act this month to guarantee that any new protections can be implemented for 2022."

To bypass the filibuster, Senate Democrats are reportedly considering an attempt to add funding for voting by mail and other election infrastructure in an upcoming reconciliation package.

"We're working to see what we can do with it, but it will not be a replacement for the federal voting standards," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Senate Rules Committee. "Because some states would just go 'Well, I don't want the money.'"

Stressing the urgency of federal action to protect voting rights, nearly 150 lawmakers from 30 states converged on the nation's capital Tuesday for a rally demanding swift passage of the For the People Act. The lawmakers joined the dozens of Texas state Democrats who left their state last month in an effort to thwart voter suppression legislation pushed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

On Thursday, Abbott announced a second special legislative session aimed at ramming the bill through.

"Here we are in 2021, and they're trying to nullify our votes after our votes are cast—all across this country," Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) said at Tuesday's rally, referring to the hundreds of voter suppression bills that state Republicans have introduced this year, animated by former President Donald Trump's incessant lies about the 2020 election results.

Several new laws enacted in Republican-led states would make it easier for political officials to challenge and potentially overturn election results, something Trump tried and failed to do last year.

"We know what this is," said Warnock. "This is the Delta variant of Jim Crow voting laws. And the only vaccination is federal legislation."

In a tweet on Friday marking the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Joe Biden warned that "half a century later, voting rights are under attack."

"We've got to pass federal legislation to protect the sacred right to vote," Biden added.

But the president has faced criticism for failing to do enough to drum up support for the For the People Act and pressure Democratic lawmakers—including Manchin and Sinema—who are standing in the way of its passage.

As Common Dreams reported last month, voting rights groups have also voiced alarm at White House officials' insistence that it's possible to "out-organize" Republican attacks on the franchise.

"Here's the reality: You cannot out-organize a well-crafted gerrymander," Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, wrote in an op-ed for the Post earlier this week. "Once manipulated maps are drawn, they will be almost impossible to overcome."

Fred Wertheimer, president of the advocacy group Democracy 21, echoed that warning on Thursday and called on Senate Democrats to suspend the upcoming August recess until the chamber takes action on voting rights.

"Time is running out," Wertheimer wrote in an op-ed for The Hill. "The Senate must pass legislation establishing voting rules for federal elections in order for the rules to be implemented in time to prevent voter suppression in the 2022 congressional elections."

"There is an urgent need for action to protect the vote and our democracy, and it's time that our leaders started acting like they understand this," Wertheimer continued. "That means no time off for senators—and the Biden administration needs to amp up the pressure."

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