After Charlottesville, It’s Time to End the Assault on Voting Rights

© Getty Images of the violence in Charlottesville, VA

In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, President Trump’s refusal to promptly and unequivocally denounce the radical, white-supremacist movement in this country was disgraceful. It was shameful, un-American, and it was wrong. It was an astounding failure of both presidential and moral leadership at a time when our nation needed it most.

Millions of Americans watched on TV as Nazi-sympathizers marched through the streets of a college town with torches, advocating racial violence and white supremacy. They watched as many in the groups shouted Nazi, anti-Semitic and racist slogans and some even gave ‘Heil Hitler’ salutes. They watched as a member of that hateful group drove a car into a crowd of people, injuring dozens and killing a young woman. Then they watched their president blame the violence “on many sides,” drawing a grotesque moral equivalence between purveyors of hate and racism and the Americans who came to stand up to those dangerous views.

We needed to hear from our president a message of unity. We needed to hear a consistent, unambiguous, forceful denouncement of racism, bigotry and violence and a reaffirmation of the values we all hold dear: inclusiveness, tolerance, equal opportunity for all, and non-violent protest. President Trump failed to deliver that message.

And what troubles so many Americans every bit as much as the president’s shocking response to this national tragedy is the methodical and pernicious way in which his administration is promoting discrimination, both subtle and not so subtle, in its policies and actions — especially when it comes to undermining the universal right of every American to vote.

The Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers at all levels of government denied black Americans the right to vote for decades. Today, voting rights are once again under assault. The misguided Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision gutted the Voting Rights Act, opening the door to the same voter suppression tactics that existed before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. In the past year and a half alone, federal courts have struck down discriminatory voting laws in North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. And some legislators, as they attempted to pass these types of bills, openly admitted their goal was to suppress minorities from voting. In the case of North Carolina, the court found that the legislature targeted African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.” This is despicable. And now there is something even more ominous happening now within the Trump Administration.

In late June, the President’s unwarranted “Election Integrity Commission,” established to investigate the President’s baseless and absurd claim that 3 to 5 million people illegally voted in the 2016 election, joined Attorney General Sessions in sending letters to the states asking for detailed voter information. This effort to intimidate voters and purge them from the rolls through a national voter database of personal information is unprecedented and was met with bipartisan opposition from Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State.

The president’s “Election Integrity Commission” and the actions of the attorney general are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are a ruse. Their only intention is to disenfranchise voters. This is how the appalling failure to use the right words and stand up to hate in the aftermath of Charlottesville is made real in the form of policy; they are two edges of the same sword.

Under the guise of voter fraud, which experts agree is practically non-existent, conservative forces in the administration, cheered on by white-supremacy-stoking publications like Breitbart News, are reviving the old playbook of disenfranchising minority voters. Unfortunately, hardly anything would make the torch-bearing men who just marched on Charlottesville any happier than for this effort to succeed.

I have been encouraged to see a good number of my Republican colleagues in the Congress speak so strongly against the hateful agenda of the white supremacist, neo-Nazi movement. And that’s how it should be — this is a bipartisan issue. I believe that they share the values and goal of creating a more inclusive society that rejects discrimination. But we need more than just words — we also need action. And I believe that one important way that Congress can begin to heal this painful divide in our country when we return in September is by showing that we can come together to stop the systemic disenfranchisement of American voters. That’s why today I am calling for two things that I hope will gain bipartisan support:

  1. Disband the Election Integrity Commission. If the president wants to truly show that he rejects the discrimination agenda of the white supremacist movement, he will rescind the Executive Order that created this commission. And if the president does not act, the Congress should prohibit its operation through one of the must-pass legislative vehicles in September. Many of us found the Election Integrity Commission distasteful when it was first created. The president’s recent failure to unequivocally condemn bigotry makes its rescission imperative.
  2. Hold a series of public hearings on the status of voting rights in America. Let’s have a public debate about these issues where experts can discuss policies like same-day registration as well as alleged voter fraud. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, vice chairman of the Election Integrity Commission, should testify as well.

When the president began his “Election Integrity Commission,” it raised a lot of eyebrows. But now, given what’s happened in the last several weeks, we’ve entered a new world and it’s even more important that the commission be disbanded.

There are many other bipartisan efforts that can erase discrimination that the Congress can and should be working on. In the Senate, for example, we have bipartisan legislation to reform our criminal justice system amongst others. If Majority Leader McConnell is willing, Democrats stand ready to work with Republicans on these issues. Actions speak louder than words.

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