GOP election strategy more Jim Crow than John Lewis

In attempts to curb voting rights and whitewash ugly events, Republicans take us back to a dark past

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has shown his true colors, finding quality and patriotism in the Jan. 6 rioters who attacked the Capitol, Curtis writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has shown his true colors, finding quality and patriotism in the Jan. 6 rioters who attacked the Capitol, Curtis writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 18, 2021 at 6:00am

What is it about Arizona? Don’t get me wrong, I love the Grand Canyon State. My only son was born there. But the personal and legislative freakout following President Joe Biden’s 2020 win there is giving the land of the majestic saguaro a very bad name.

The state’s Republican Party went all the way to the Supreme Court to defend voting policies that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found resulted in discrimination against Latino, Native American and Black voters. Though the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court seems likely to approve the policies because that’s what they do, Michael Carvin, a lawyer for the Arizona GOP, revealed more than he may have intended — or maybe he didn’t care — when being questioned by Justice Amy Coney Barrett on why the GOP didn’t want to count votes cast in the wrong precinct on Election Day.

“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” he said, knowing, I’m sure, that voters of color move more often and have precincts switched on them more frequently and with little notice. “Politics is a zero-sum game, and every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretations of Section 2 hurts us.” 

After the John Roberts court in 2013 struck down portions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the mechanism that required states and counties with a history of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” before any election change, states across the country scrambled to enact an avalanche of bills that purged voter rolls, cut early voting and same-day registration and targeted minority voters with, as a federal court ruled in the case of North Carolina, “almost surgical precision.” Section 2, which requires proof of discriminatory results, is all that’s left, for now.

If Carvin’s intent wasn’t clear, his spiritual tag-team partner, Arizona GOP state Rep. John Kavanagh, brought the message home in remarks over proposed restrictions to Arizona’s vote-by-mail system. “Democrats value as many people as possible voting, and they’re willing to risk fraud. Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote — but everybody shouldn’t be voting,” he told CNN. “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”

Pause here to note that the 2020 election was judged, by both Republican and Democratic elections officials, as the most secure ever, and voter fraud has been proved extremely rare. The suspicion of fraudulent voting was stoked by lies from President Donald Trump down to the GOP lawmakers who voted to overturn the 2020 results (except the results that won them another term). Those lies are now being used as justification for a long list of voting changes.

The GOP’s way, placing obstacles in the way of voters deemed not of “quality,” is easier than crafting policies that appeal to a diverse America, the obvious solution when it comes to reducing that “competitive disadvantage” that Carvin complained about.

Any goodwill most of Arizona may have earned for abstaining from daylight saving time has vanished. Its anti-Democratic actions to limit the vote aren’t just wrong. They are shameful.

They are also nothing new. It’s Jim Crow dusted off and given a new name — “election integrity.” And it’s spreading in the form of more than 250 bills in states across the country, bills that resemble Arizona’s in motive, if not the exact particulars.

A painful history

The excuses echo the rationale behind the poll taxes and literacy tests that historically hobbled African Americans. Black Americans were denied economic opportunity and equal education, then forced to stand in front of elections officials who were never going to judge them worthy of the franchise, even if they could recite the preamble to the Constitution from memory or guess exactly how many jelly beans were in that jar.

It was the reason for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though it was a bloc of Southern Democratic senators that opposed the bill that a Democratic president from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, signed, Republicans are pushing back in 2021.

HR 1, the For the People Act, and HR 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, have been presented as protections for the rights that too many are eager to claw back. The first would expand early voting, ease voter registration and curb racial gerrymandering, among other provisions. The second would restore the strength of the 1965 law and is fittingly named for John Lewis, who along with other brave civil rights marchers shed blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to shame the country into enacting it.

The bills probably have no chance in today’s Senate, though Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that a failure to pass it was “not an option,” the same day Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., in his maiden floor speech called voting restrictions “Jim Crow in new clothes.” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has called HR 1 “a bill as if written in hell by the devil himself” and compared House Democrats to the “devil” for writing and passing it.

King of the GOP

Today’s standard-bearer for the party of Lincoln seems to be Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. No Republicans have decisively repudiated his odious musings, so anointing him king of the GOP seems fair. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., saying, “Every member speaks for themselves,” in response to a question about Johnson, is weak tea, indeed. 

If Johnson were running elections, I could imagine him using a “good moral character” exemption for whites applying for a voting card, following the example of his Jim Crow brethren. Johnson has shown his own true colors, finding quality and patriotism in the rioters, including Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and white supremacists, who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. They are presumably his people, who can break windows and body parts, as long as they’re shooting bear spray in the face of a police officer or carrying a Trump banner in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other.

On Jan. 6, one largely ignored destructive note was the trashing of a Capitol exhibit honoring the late Rep. Lewis, who spent a lifetime fighting for true election integrity. Yet Johnson chose to praise the thugs and hoodlums who dishonored his own congressional colleague’s place in American history.

Where only a few years ago, several Republican lawmakers — cynically and politically, maybe, but joining hands nonetheless — would rush to march with Lewis on his commemorative returns to the bridge, those who backed a president’s attempts to delegitimize Black voters in Georgia, the state Lewis represented, made common cause with those who trampled his memorial.

Will the filibuster, used by South Carolina Democrat-turned-Dixiecrat-turned Republican Strom Thurmond to stomp on every civil rights bill that came his way, survive the push to protect voting rights for all?

That’s a battle to come.

For now, the best chance toward progress may be actions modeled by Georgia voting rights activists, pressuring big businesses — the ones with inclusive mission statements and a diverse customer base — to withhold support for any lawmaker backing the new Jim Crow voting laws.

It may be necessary, but a shame if the power of the purse becomes the most effective tool in the fight to protect the vote. Unfortunately, respect for the American people and the life’s work of a colleague may not be enough to do the trick.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call’s newest podcast, “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis,” examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on AppleSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.