When I spoke at John Lewis’ memorial service two years ago, I emphasized a truth John knew better than just about anyone. Our democracy isn’t a given. It isn’t self-executing. We, as citizens, have to nurture and tend it. We have to work at it. And in that task, we have to vigilantly preserve and protect our most basic tool of self-government, which is the right to vote.
At the time, various state legislators across the country had already passed a variety of laws designed to make voting harder. It was an attack on everything John Lewis fought for, and a challenge to our most fundamental democratic freedoms.
Since then, things have only gotten worse.
Slow unraveling of basic democratic principles
While the American people turned out to vote at the highest rate in a century in the last presidential election, members of one of our two major political parties – spurred on by the then-sitting president – denied the results of that election and spun conspiracy theories that drove a violent mob to attack our Capitol.
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Although initially rejected by many Republicans, those claims continued to be amplified by conservative media outlets, and have since been embraced by a sizable portion of Republican voters – not to mention GOP elected officials who do, or at least should, know better. Those Republican officials and conservative thought leaders who have courageously stood their ground and rejected such anti-democratic efforts have found themselves ostracized, threatened and subjected to primary challenges.
Meanwhile, state legislators in 49 states have introduced more than 400 bills designed to suppress votes. Some of these bills we’ve seen before: legislation that would discourage voters, including racial minorities, low-income voters and young people from casting a ballot. Others aim to treat certain polling locations differently, creating one set of rules for voters living in cities and another set for people living in more conservative, rural areas.
We’re also seeing more aggressive attempts to gerrymander congressional districts. Gerrymandering, which essentially allows politicians to choose their voters instead of the other way around, isn’t new – and both parties have engaged in it.
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But what we’re seeing now are far more aggressive and precise efforts on the part of Republican state legislatures to tilt the playing field in their favor. In states that have approved new congressional maps, there are now 15 fewer competitive districts than there were before. Fewer competitive districts increases partisanship, since candidates who only have to appeal to primary voters have no incentive to compromise or move to the center.
Finally and perhaps most perniciously, we’ve seen state legislatures try to assert power over core election processes including the ability to certify election results. These partisan attempts at voter nullification are unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times, and they represent a profound threat to the basic democratic principle that all votes should be counted fairly and objectively.
The good news is that the majority of American voters are resistant to this slow unraveling of basic democratic institutions and electoral mechanisms. But their elected representatives have a sacred obligation to push back as well – and now is the time to do it.
Now, there are bills in front of the Senate that would protect the right to vote, end partisan gerrymandering, and restore crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act. Bill sponsors have diligently reached out to their Republican colleagues to obtain their support. Sadly, almost every Senate Republican who expressed concern about threats to our democracy in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection has since been cowed into silence or reversed their positions. When one of the bills in front of the Senate today was introduced in November, every Democrat supported it. And every Republican but one voted against moving it forward.
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Protecting our democracy wasn’t always a partisan issue. The Voting Rights Act was the result of Democratic and Republican efforts, and both President Reagan and President George W. Bush signed its renewal when they were in office. But even if Senate Republicans now refuse to stand up for our democracy, Democrats should be able to get the job done with a simple majority vote. There are already 50 Senators who support bills to safeguard elections. The only thing standing in the way is the filibuster – a Senate procedure that allows a minority of just 41 Senators to prevent legislation from being brought up for a vote.
The filibuster has no basis in the Constitution. Historically, the parliamentary tactic was used sparingly – most notably by Southern senators to block civil rights legislation and prop up Jim Crow. In recent years, the filibuster became a routine way for the Senate minority to to block important progress on issues supported by the majority of voters. But we can’t allow it to be used to block efforts to protect our democracy. That’s why I fully support President Joe Biden’s call to modify Senate rules as necessary to make sure pending voting rights legislation gets called for a vote. And every American who cares about the survival of our most cherished institutions should support the president’s call as well.
Protecting our democratic institutions
For generations, Americans of every political stripe have taken pride in our status as the world’s oldest continuous democracy. We have spilled precious blood and spent countless treasure in defense of democracy and freedom abroad. But as we learned during the Jim Crow era, our role as democracy’s defender isn’t credible when we violate the rights and freedoms of our own citizens. And at a time when democracy is under attack on every continent, we can’t hope to set an example for the world when one of our two major parties seems intent on chipping away at the foundation of our own democracy.
Their fight, in their words:Americans stood up to racism in 1961 and changed history.
No single piece of legislation can guarantee that we’ll make progress on every challenge we face as a nation. But legislation that ensures the right to vote and makes sure every vote is properly counted will give us a better chance of meeting those challenges. It’s how we can overcome the gridlock and cynicism that’s so prevalent right now. It’s how we can stop climate change, and reform our broken immigration system, and help ensure that our children enjoy an economy that works for everyone and not just the few.
Now is the time for all of us to follow John Lewis example. Now is the time for the U.S. Senate to do the right thing. America’s long-standing grand experiment in democracy is being sorely tested. Future generations are counting on us to meet that test.
Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States. This is the first opinion piece he’s authored since leaving the White House on Jan. 20, 2017.