“I’ve never seen anything like the unrelenting assault on the right to vote,” President Joe Biden declared as he spoke last Friday at the fall commencement ceremony of South Carolina State University. “This new sinister combination of voter suppression and election subversion, it’s un-American, it’s undemocratic and sadly, it’s unprecedented since Reconstruction,” the president lamented in front of the HBCU audience, declaring that “we must pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”

Is Biden finally stepping up, or is it too little, too late? The president’s remarks come after months of Republican efforts to undermine voting rights in states throughout the country and Democratic gridlock in passing federal voting rights legislation. Political leaders and activists are putting renewed pressure on President Joe Biden to deliver on his promise to protect voting rights. As Biden’s signature Build Back Better legislation has stalled in the Senate, the president has announced a shift in focus, declaring that “there’s nothing domestically more important” than passing voting rights legislation. That focus is currently centered on two pieces of voting rights legislation: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, both of which are currently stalled in the U.S. Senate.

For many Black lawmakers and activists, the administration’s new focus on voting has been a long time coming. Blavity has been tracking progress on the issue. We have spent months speaking exclusively with legislators and activists fighting against Republican-led voter suppression efforts across the country. In this — the first of a three-part series on the fight for voting rights — we examine how we reached this current crisis.

The  Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for discrimination

Let’s be honest — for most of American history, the U.S. and a number of states in particular have worked very hard to deny Black people basic rights, including the right to vote. It’s taken the activism, organizing, blood, sweat and tears of countless people to achieve victories, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to push this country to uphold its ideals when it comes to Black Americans. Yet every victory has been followed by backlash, anger and attempts to roll back the progress that has been made.

The current assault against the voting rights of Black people has been long and multifaceted. Many point to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in the case Shelby County v. Holder for setting us on this current path. The 5-4 Court ruling threw out section four of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This part of the historic civil rights legislation provided a formula that identified certain states and localities, mostly in the South, that had historically discriminated against Black voters and other minorities. Basically, the Act held that these areas of the country could not be trusted to stop racially discriminating against voters. The governments of these areas were therefore required to get prior approval from the federal government before changing their voting laws.

However, in 2013, the Court majority argued that because these states were not, in their opinion, actively using racial discrimination against voters, they no longer needed to be supervised. Such reasoning, of course, ignored the strong possibility that these areas were not actively discriminating against Black voters because federal supervision was preventing them from doing so.

And, surprise, surprise, once the Voting Rights Act was rendered toothless, many of these locations have gone right back to putting in place policies that prevent Black folks from voting. As the Guardian reports, Texas and North Carolina passed restrictive voter ID laws immediately after the 2013 ruling; the North Carolina law was stopped by a federal court for "target[ing] African Americans with almost surgical precision." Overall, the Brennan Center for Justice documents 22 states that have passed voter restrictions since 2013; these policies cover a range of issues, including voter ID requirements, cutbacks in voter registration and early voting opportunities, and restrictions on voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.

COVID and Black voters changed the game in 2020; Republicans changed the rules in 2021

Fast forward to 2020, when COVID reshaped what was always going to be a momentous and contentious election. Faced with a growing pandemic, states across the country expanded to early and mail-in voting options. While these measures didn’t eliminate all of the restrictions put in place since the Shelby ruling, COVID-related voting options in 2020 contributed to record voter turnout, including increased voting by Black and other minority voters.

Growing political polarization, including a groundswell of opposition to former President Donald Trump’s administration, also fueled voter turnout, which saw Joe Biden become president and Democrats retake the House and — by the slimmest of margins — the Senate. Black voters played a decisive role in these victories.

Trump, who had already spent his campaign lying about election fraud, attempted to overturn the election results in a variety of ways that are still being sorted out, including frivolous court cases, pressure on legislators to illegally change state election results and the January 6 insurrection. Meanwhile, at the state level, GOP governors and legislators decided to prevent 2020 from happening again by doubling down on restrictive voter laws. Georgia moved early, spurred by a Republican-led state government that had been shocked by the state voting for President Joe Biden and two Democratic senators. In March, it passed a nearly 100-page omnibus bill, Senate Bill 202, the “Election Integrity Act” — Republicans have become good at giving their oppressive laws positive names — which implemented a host of voter restrictions.

In July, Blavity spoke to Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon, who was arrested in March when she tried to intervene in the secretive process by which the Georgia law was passed. As Cannon described, Senate Bill 202 was passed “under the mask” of COVID restrictions, which the Republican-controlled state government used to shield the legislation from the usual scrutiny of Democrats and the public. “We were simply unable to stop a newly appointed committee of all white men legislators from the GOP from doing a bait and switch,” Rep. Cannon explained of the process that led to Senate Bill 202. “Literally overnight they changed Senate Bill 202 from being a two-page bill to being a 98-page bill” that included numerous restriction on voting and criminal penalties attached to violating voting law.

After Georgia, Texas was one of the next states to try to adopt a slate of voting restrictions. In this case, Democrats saw this move coming. Texas Democrats went to extreme measures to oppose these new laws, eventually leaving the state to prevent the Texas legislature from having the minimum number of legislators necessary to pass legislation. In July, Blavity spoke to Texas state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, who at the time was one of dozens of Texas Democratic lawmakers in Washington D.C. urging for federal voting protections.

Crockett explained, at the time, the proposed restrictions on things like early voting, weekend voting, vote by mail and curbside voting were all aimed at making it more difficult for low-income and minority people in the state to vote. Rep. Crockett noted that was the case in Harris County, home of Houston, the state’s largest city and a majority Latino and Black community. ”Because Harris County decided to offer 24-hour voting,” Crocket explained, “the Republicans have decided that’s not good.” She also noted that the new laws would increase the power of partisan poll watchers and enhance criminal penalties for illegal voting, magnifying laws that have already been used to jail Crystal Mason and Hervis Rogers, both of whom unknowingly violated Texas law by voting while being on restrictions from prior criminal convictions.

The laws in Georgia and Texas are just the most extreme examples of a much larger trend. The Brennan Center counts 19 states that have passed voter restrictions this year. Voting rights activists lament that the current slate of voting restrictions are the worst since when the Jim Crow era ended with the Voting Rights Act.

“These Supreme Court appointees are like, ‘Oh, the formula is too old,’” Rep. Crockett said of the Shelby ruling that opened the door for these restrictions. “Well, seemingly not. We’ve still got a lot of the same stuff that was popping off in the '50s.” 

In part two of this series, we will take a closer look at the politicians and activists who have been resisting voter suppression and advocating for greater protections for voting rights.