By Andrea Custis
As we recover from the COVID-19 crisis, we face another problem across the county: a voting rights rollback.
Nationwide, politicians are engaging in a power grab: they are doing everything in their power to suppress the vote, particularly in minority communities. With the possible exception of Georgia’s, no state legislature has more ambition or greater intention to block average men and women from voting than does Pennsylvania.
Many election rights advocates have sounded the alarm saying that these laws are the greatest assault on Americans’ right to vote since the South’s Jim Crow era’s barriers to the ballot.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, compared to this time last year, state legislators have introduced well over four times the number of bills to restrict voting access. Thirty-three states have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 165 restrictive bills this year — compared to just 35 such bills in fifteen states in early 2020.
Here in Pennsylvania, state legislators have introduced 14 bills to make it harder to vote. If they get their way, there will be several barriers for voters by the next election.
For instance, you would have to show an [picture] ID before you vote – if you don’t have one, you can’t vote. If the signature does not match your previous signature, your ballot will be rejected.
Dropboxes have been an absolute convenience for people with jobs, the elderly, and caregivers. But no matter, under this state legislation, dropboxes may be eliminated. And voter registrations could be purged from the voting rolls.
To fight this trend, the House just passed the People Act (H.R.1, S.1). This bill works in tandem with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act by strengthening access to the ballot box in minority communities where voting rights have been under attack.
The For the People Act contains an express commitment to restore the Voting Rights Act’s full protections that were gutted in Shelby County v. Holder.
As we speak, states such as Georgia and Arizona are making it harder for people of color to vote. In Georgia, House Bill 531/Senate Bill 241 would require photo identification for absentee voting, limit the number of times voters can request an absentee ballot, restrict where drop boxes are located, and limit early voting on weekends. In Arizona, a state representative recently told CNN that “everybody should not be voting.”
I fear Pennsylvania is next.
Voting rights has a long history at the Urban League.
Whitney Young, the Urban League president (1961-1971) during the critical years of the civil rights movement, understood that Blacks in this country could never have economic power if they did not have the right to vote and participate in democratic institutions. He spent his time at the Urban League organizing voting registration drives across the United States.
Today, the Urban League continues this legacy.
The U.S. Senate must make it a priority to pass S.1 For the People Act. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix our democratic institutions to ensure our children and grandchildren do not grow up still unable to participate in democracy fully.
Andrea Custis is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.