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Smith: The most important right

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For the last several years, it has been common to hear or read some version of the following argument: “Education is the main civil rights issue of our day.” As an article in U.S. News & World Report pointed out in 2016, this is one of the few major issues about which most Republicans and Democrats seem to agree.

Barack Obama affirmed this view while he was president, as did George W. Bush. While I don’t see or hear this argument as frequently today as I have in the recent past, I’m aware that many well-known individuals and organizations still use it.

To the extent that it is important to designate one societal problem as “the” civil rights issue of any given era — which is a notion about which I’m skeptical — I do not agree that education is the one that should hold such a status. (This is despite my belief that a high-quality education for all young people is exceedingly important to them and to our nation.) If any issue should be considered primus inter pares, it is the right to vote.

Before he was elevated to the Supreme Court, current Chief Justice John Roberts had to sit through Senate confirmation hearings. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a civil rights giant, asked Roberts about his views regarding the Voting Rights Act. Kennedy did so because Roberts was well known in political circles for being hostile to the act ever since he joined the Reagan administration as a young attorney. In responding to Kennedy, Roberts said, “(The right to vote) is preservative of … all other rights. Without access to the ballot box, people are not in the position to protect any other rights that are important to them.” (Roberts managed not to giggle as he uttered those words.)

I agree with the sentiment that Roberts expressed during the hearings, even though his rulings do not reflect his rhetoric. Further, as I’ve pointed out previously, Republican legislatures throughout the nation are engaging in Jim Crow 2.0 by passing laws that severely curtail African Americans’ right to vote. (Predictably, the Roberts-led Supreme Court is intent on upholding these discriminatory laws.)

For the last two decades, Republicans have continually perpetuated an earlier version of the Big Lie of 2020, namely that they want to prevent “voter fraud.” The problem with that assertion is that it is fraudulent. Republicans’ own studies have shown that, out of more than a billion votes cast in the last couple of decades, there are only a few dozen examples of fraud. In many instances, the “violators” were unaware that they had engaged in fraud. Or, there were clerical errors or problems with data matching. The Brennan Center for Justice found that intentional voter fraud is between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent of votes cast — bamboo splinters notwithstanding.

In short, Republicans understand that the danger is not that people (including undocumented immigrants) are going to vote illegally; the real problem is that more Americans tend to vote for the Democratic Party than for the Republican Party. For example, consider the 2018 mid-term elections. Overall, Americans cast 12 million more votes for Democrats than for Republicans, yet the latter held the Senate until the 2020 election. And even though Democrats re-took the House in 2018, they likely would have had won more seats were it not for Republicans’ gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics.

Further, given the results of the 2020 census, Republicans have vowed to continue egregious gerrymandering across the states. (I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that Democrats have engaged in gerrymandering in years past. Still, the scope, scale and precision of Republican efforts are unprecedented.) In the powerful words of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “… the core principle of republican government … (is) that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

Fortunately, in a hopeful sign, the House of Representatives just passed legislation to strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court has effectively gutted in the last decade. Now, it is up to the Democrats in the Senate to join them — even if that means shedding the filibuster. (Many Democrats are loath to do that.) If they fail to do so, African Americans should shed the Democratic Party.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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