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Activists take part in a voting rights protest in front of the White House on November 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Amid GOP Attacks, UN Expert Warns of Near 'Tyranny' Against Voting Rights of US Minorities

"It is very far from, to borrow from the country's Constitution, 'a perfect union.'"

Jessica Corbett

After completing an extended visit to explore the current state of U.S. society and democracy, a United Nations expert on Monday blasted near "tyranny" against the voting rights of minorities nationwide.

"The patchwork of constitutional and civil rights in the country are not sufficiently protecting those most in need of protection."

The remarks from Fernand de Varennes, the U.N. special rapporteur on minority issues, came after he spent two weeks traveling the country to "assess the human rights situation of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities."

The special rapporteur met with over 100 officials at federal, state, and territorial levels along with civil society groups and other experts, both online and in-person in the District of Columbia, Guam, California, Texas, and Puerto Rico. While de Varennes is now preparing a report on his findings, he shared his initial assessment on various issues, including voting rights.

"My final report will provide more details and analysis in this regard, but what is already eminently clear is that there seems to be a growing feeling that the United States is becoming a darker, nastier, and more divided society—and that the patchwork of constitutional and civil rights in the country are not sufficiently protecting those most in need of protection such as minorities and Indigenous peoples, amongst others," he said in a statement. "It is very far from, to borrow from the country's Constitution, 'a perfect union.'"

The expert explained that despite the constitutionally protected right to vote and be elected, "it became clear during this mission that this is increasingly and actively being undermined—and impacting mainly minorities such as African-Americans, Hispanics, and Indigenous peoples."

After sharing some of another U.N. expert's observations of the phenomenon in 2017, de Varennes said that "four years later, the pace of what my colleague described as the undermining of democracy has expanded explosively."

Legislators in 49 states this year have collectively introduced more than 425 bills with provisions that restrict voting access, and 19 states have enacted 33 laws to make it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

The "most notable" measure is "a Texan omnibus legislation that disproportionately impacts on African-American, Hispanic, and Asian minorities," de Varennes said, pointing out that the law "makes it harder for those who face language access barriers, mainly minorities, to get help to cast their ballots, but also restricts the ability of election workers to stop harassment disproportionally targeting minorities by partisan poll watchers and bans 24-hour and drive-thru voting."

The U.S. Department of Justice earlier this month sued Texas over parts of the law, with Attorney General Merrick Garland declaring that "our democracy depends on the right of eligible voters to cast a ballot and to have that ballot counted," and vowing the DOJ "will continue to use all the authorities at its disposal to protect this fundamental pillar of our society."

De Varennes also addressed the issue of gerrymandering, which has recently generated alarm from Georgia to Ohio to Texas.

"The electoral system in Texas, and unfortunately in a number of other states… appears increasingly loaded against minorities," he said. "Despite minorities representing about 95% of the population growth in the state in the 2020 Census of which more than half was Hispanic, the two congressional seats added because of this population growth have a majority white population makeup according to court documents filed in a lawsuit a few weeks before my mission."

On top of the voter suppression efforts largely led and enacted by Republicans, the U.N. expert highlighted that "citizens in United States territories (including Guam and Puerto Rico, which I visited) cannot vote in presidential elections."

"American Samoans cannot vote in any event because they are not considered U.S. citizens—even if they are American 'nationals,'" he explained. "They are not represented in the U.S. Senate, and their representatives in the House of Representatives cannot vote on the floor."

"On the positive side, two federal draft voting bills are currently before Congress, the Freedom to Vote and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which aim to set national voting standards and strengthen legal protections against discriminatory voting laws and policies," he added. "It is however far from certain these will succeed in being adopted."

Republicans in the evenly split Senate this year have not only blocked those two bills, but also the bolder For the People Act. Despite such actions from the chamber's GOP, a few Democrats still refuse to support abolishing the filibuster to send voting rights legislation and other measures to President Joe Biden's desk.

Given the current conditions in the country, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance on Monday added the U.S. to its list of "backsliding" democracies. The think tank's secretary general, Kevin Casas-Zamora, said that "the visible deterioration of democracy in the United States, as seen in the increasing tendency to contest credible election results, the efforts to suppress participation [in elections], and the runaway polarization... is one of the most concerning developments."

De Varennes issued a similar warning during a Monday news briefing, according to Reuters. He said that "it is becoming unfortunately apparent that it is almost a tyranny of the majority where the minority right to vote is being denied in many areas."

Along with detailing his alarm about attacks on voting rights in the United States, De Varennes also laid out his concerns with dramatic increases in hate speech and crimes; environmental injustice; rising economic, educational, and health disparities; and racial discrimination in policing and the legal system.

The expert also praised the Biden administration for making some progress. Reuters noted that "there was no immediate U.S. reaction to his preliminary observations which de Varennes said he had shared with U.S. State Department officials earlier in the day."

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