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‘Democracy is a process, not a state of being’

Here's what's next for state activists after voting rights legislation failed in Congress.

Voting rights activists stage a protest on the Senate steps of the Capitol on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The Senate’s failure to pass voting rights legislation this month was a blow to Democrats and Black activists who hoped to stem the tide of laws limiting ballot access across the country. Many had stressed the urgency of passing the bill ahead of November’s midterm elections, but the effort was thwarted when senators blocked a change to the filibuster rule needed to push voting rights legislation through. 

As voting rights efforts have stalled at the federal level, the setback has only ramped up efforts of activists working to curb the voting restrictions coming through statehouses. Like all politics, the activists say, the effort to protect the ballot box is local.

“We’re not surprised; we’ve been dealing with voter suppression and these types of challenges for at least 10-plus years,” said Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), a Milwaukee-based political action group. “On a national level, we need real action because without that we’re just subjected to the Republican-controlled legislature that continues to try and put forth voter suppression bills.”

The federal legislation included several proposed protections, including longer early voting periods, expanding voting by mail, and making Election Day a national holiday. Its failure is another hurdle in the generations-old battle to open up access to the ballot box – and prevent backsliding on that progress. 

Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, a Supreme Court decision in 2013 struck down a provision for federal oversight of jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices. After the Shelby County v. Holder decision, many states with Republican-led legislatures adopted laws that restricted access to voting, including photo ID mandates, shorter voting hours, and the elimination of same-day voter registration.

The aftermath of the 2020 election has brought another flurry of state bills that curb ballot access. Voting rights advocates say those laws make their work at the state and local level as important as ever, even without the backing of federal law. 

BLOC has focused on keeping voters updated on the status of Wisconsin’s fight over the use of absentee ballot drop boxes. Partisan leaders have battled in court over whether the drop boxes are legal, with Republicans seeking to get rid of them ahead of upcoming local elections, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The state’s Election Commission has deadlocked along party lines and absentee ballot dropboxes will remain – for now. 

“We have four elections this year. The rules for one may be completely different for another election later on,” Lang said. 

A Voting Rights and Economic Justice activist is arrested on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 28, 2021, after she and others tried to gain access to Hart Senate Office Building while protesting. – US President Joe Biden announced a “historic” framework Thursday for spending $3 trillion on America’s social safety net and crumbling infrastructure, but his claim to be on the cusp of a major political victory had yet to get full backing from Democrats. Two conservative Democratic senators who have held up the social spending component, calling it too expensive, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, sounded positive but did not commit to supporting Biden’s framework. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

One of those upcoming elections is for Milwaukee’s mayor, which could result in the city’s first Black elected mayor – and Wisconsin’s second. Voters will go to the polls in the nonpartisan primary on Feb. 15, and the top two candidates will move on to the April election. 

Lang said the special election is a perfect opportunity to get people engaged ahead of the midterm elections and statewide races in November. With more voters using absentee ballots, she said, it’s important to keep people up-to-date on rule changes.

Currently, when Wisconsin voters request an absentee ballot, they can check a box to have ballots sent to them for subsequent elections, as well. If the box is not checked, voters need to request a new ballot for each election. 

Lang said there was similar uncertainty in 2020, “when election rules were changing 24 hours in advance. And so being able to have people get those assets, i.e. ballot requests –  out of the way now is also incredibly helpful.”

Formed ahead of the 2018 midterms, BLOC launched with a commitment to sustain civic engagement in Black communities and build long-term political power. Lang said that she and her team try to help voters understand the impact of the current mobilization against voting rights across the country. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act largely targeted Southern states with a history of literacy tests and poll taxes, today’s restrictions to voting access are nationwide.

“Wisconsin gets compared to the South in a lot of ways, whether it’s racism or the voter suppression,” Lang said. “And for us, we want to make sure that people understand that this is not just a Wisconsin thing.”

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 13: Sens. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., right, and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., leave a Senate Democrats luncheon with President Joe Biden to discuss ending the filibuster to pass voting rights bills in Russell Building on Thursday, January 13, 2022. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The political power of Black voters has been a decisive factor in many recent elections, notably in the elections of Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff  and Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate. Black-led organizing efforts also have been critical in local elections, like the November passage of Issue 24 in Cleveland, which increased police oversight. 

Some backers of the voting restrictions have used the record turnout of Black voters in some recent elections to refute claims that the wave of voting restrictions introduced across the country are an effort at voter suppression. 

“If people are seeing increased numbers in voter turnout, which we are in some states, it’s important to know that there are Herculean efforts being done in order to get that to happen,” Lang said. “There are so many different challenges and intersections that prevent us from being able to vote and participate fully, especially if you’ve been impacted by the criminal justice system, and have your voting rights taken away.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cited increased Black voters turnout as evidence that federal intervention is unnecessary. Analyses of the impact of voting restrictions has been mixed, but one Mother Jones report found newly enacted measures around absentee ballots resulted in a significant increase in the likelihood that a voter’s absentee ballot would be rejected. 

Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action Fund – voter registration efforts – said the mobilization to boost Black turnout during elections in spite of suppression efforts is part of a broader battle for democracy, one that came to a head when supporters of President Trump stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

“Don’t talk to me of our organizing and the effectiveness of our organizing when it is in response to the criminality that we refuse to talk about publicly and honestly,” Ufot said.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 07: Executive Director of the New Georgia Project Nse Ufot speaks on stage during the “Count Every Vote” message in the wake of the presidential election results at Freedom Park on November 07, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for MoveOn)

Conversation about Georgia’s voting restrictions law, SB 202, last year largely focused on the ban on the practice of “line warming,” when nonpartisan volunteers hand out snacks and water to people waiting to vote. But Ufot says the “real evil” of the law is the potential for overturning election results through a provision that expands the state legislature’s ability to intervene in election administration.

“And so we are preparing for that eventuality,” Ufot said. “That starts with volunteer recruitment and fundraising for the infrastructure that needs to be built. That means constantly monitoring the voter rolls and making sure that people aren’t being secretly purged.”

She said her organization will continue strategizing and scenario-planning with coalition partners, as well as monitoring the county board of elections.

“There’s 159 counties in Georgia,” Ufot said. “And we have tried to have eyes in every single county that has a board of elections meeting.”

With additional laws moving through the Georgia state house that could have an impact on the 2022 election, including a proposal to ban the use of ballot drop boxes anywhere in the state, Ufot said her team will continue to “hold the line.” 

“Democracy is a process, it’s not a state of being,” Ufot said. “It’s about the commitment to your community, and the world that we’re trying to live in. We don’t have the luxury of checking out.”