Let’s be clear: Pass the John Lewis and For the People bills, avoiding the tragedy of Post-Reconstruction

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Congressman John Lewis

By Ivory Phillips

JA Contributing Editor

A few weeks ago, in our haste to get out an article emphasizing the importance of getting rid of the current filibuster rule, we made the mistake of saying that the John Lewis Voting Rights bill was now called the For the People bill. Let’s be clear. They are not one and the same. Rather than being a gigantic omnibus bill dealing with voting rights, they are two separate, but similar bills. Furthermore, it needs to be emphasized that both bills have passed the House and both need to be passed by the Senate.  In a sense, they are companion bills that can help the country to protect and advance democracy as well as avoid the tragedy of Post-Reconstruction.

Just in case there are a few souls who are not familiar with the tragedy of Post-Reconstruction America, we can be clear about that as well.  Between 1876 and 1890, the southern states, that had been a part of the Confederacy that waged war against the United States, used violence and terror tactics to drive Black men and their allies, called carpetbaggers and scalawags, from office.  Not stopping at that, these southerners pro-ceeded to re-write their state Constitutions and pass laws that made it nearly impossible for Black men to vote, let along get elected.  By the end of the 19th Century, there were virtually no Black elected officials left in the south; white Republicans were also absent.  Only about 10% of the Black male population that had voted in the elections of the 1860s was able to vote after these legal changes. Through such requirements as the paying of an annual poll tax, passing a literacy test, and maintaining a clean legal and moral record, Black men were disenfranchised.  That was the tragedy that encompassed the south, where Black people lived and were frequently in the majority in many jurisdictions.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, enabling Black men and women to vote and run for office.  Over a period of nearly 50 years, they occupied offices in many southern states and large cities outside the south.  This kind of advancement and the type of progressive policies which they often championed led to the lawsuit, Shelby County vs. Holder, whereby the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

That decision literally opened the doors for the kind of racially-directed voter suppression laws as were passed by the Georgia State Legislature earlier this month.  Many other states are either already in the process of following Georgia’s lead or poised to do so, depend-ing upon the outcome of the Georgia Experiment.  (For the sake of those unfamiliar with the history, the rest of the south similarly followed the lead of Mississippi in its Black voter suppression efforts in 1890.)  It is the threat of this renewed tragedy that causes us to declare that the Senate must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement bill.

Additionally, as Republicans have contin-ued to lose elections every four years, their party has decided to engage in increased voter suppression activities.  These efforts are aimed not only at Black voters, but others who may have a tendency to vote for progressive candidates.  These constituencies include many well-educated white women, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Muslims, youngsters, the elderly, and college and university communities.  The tactics include, among other things:  widescale gerrymandering, reduction of voting places and voting drop-boxes, restrictions on early voting and absentee voting, voter identification requirements, and the periodic purging of the voting rolls.  These make it necessary to go beyond the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement bill to the For the People bill.

The “For the People” bill is something of an omnibus bill, covering voting and elections, campaign financing, ethics in politics, and findings to support D.C. statehood.  (1) The bill spells out or sup-ports many ways to maxi-mize voting opportunities. (2) It provides for voting security through the use of paper ballots, the retention of the same, and the use of U.S.A. manufactured voting machines. (3) It provides for the public financing of elec-tions, requires the disclosure of donors who contribute to political action committees, and discourages and closely monitors foreign lobbyists.(4) It makes gerrymandering more difficult by establish-ing independent commissions to draw voting district lines and requires that such district lines conform to a set of 5 non-partisan criteria.  (5) In term of ethics, it requires can-didates to disclose their tax returns, office-holders to pay for discrimination lawsuits out of their own pockets, sets ethical standards for Supreme Court justices, and re-constitutes the federal election commission.

While the bill does not advance Washington, D.C. to the point of becoming a state, it does provide supporting data for the same, disclos-ing the ways in which D.C. residents are denied equal representation on many fronts enjoyed by other jurisdictions.

It is clear from reading the bill that, if passed, it will pro-tect and advance the concept of democracy, especially the idea of one man, one vote.  In many ways, it is the kind of law that can prevent one political party or an ambitious individual from transforming America into a dictatorship or authoritarian government.

At the same time, the John Lewis bill is needed in order to restore and advance the principles of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  The bill would restore the requirement for federal pre-clearance before any election law changes in jurisdictions where voting violations have surfaced within the last 25 years.  It would also broaden the power of the courts over voting rights violations, enabling the attorney general to send federal observers into jurisdic-tions where the courts deem it necessary, and to block new election policies that may suppress Black voting.

With these two laws in place, there will be much less of a chance of states turning the clock back on Black voters to the 1890s.  There will also be less of a chance of having white supremacists transform America into a dictatorship wherein one of their own can rule in such a racist way as did Adolf Hitler in Nazi, Germany, and as Donald Trump had hoped to do in America.

At the same time, however, the citizens cannot afford to let their guards down.  As Thomas Jefferson warned, “The cost of freedom is eternal vigilance.”  Citizens must remain aware that before the bills can be passed, we must get through the Senate filibuster or change it.  After the bills have been passed, we have to make sure that the court does not overturn them.  To put it another way, we can remember the quote of Frederick Douglass who said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”  We must be ever vigilante in protecting and advancing our freedom and always ready to engage in the struggle that is necessary if we are to prevail.  Passing the John Lewis and For the People is just two more steps in this quest.