This week, Congress finally started work in earnest on the topic of voting rights. On Monday, the House of Representatives held a hearing on the topic of making Washington, D.C. a state, granting its 700,000 residents actual representation in Congress. On Wednesday, the Senate held a hearing on the House-passed H.R. 1, called the For the People Act, which would reform democracy in a multitude of ways, including protecting the right to vote against a series of anti-voting laws in red states known collectively as the "new Jim Crow."
It would be an understatement to say Republicans are panicked by both the ideas of voting protections and D.C. statehood. After Donald Trump, the GOP understands their party exists because of racism and white grievance. Rather than try to moderate those views and appeal to more diverse voters, they instead are laser-focused on trying to prevent people of color from exercising their right to vote. That means keeping D.C. from becoming a state and enacting a series of draconian laws in states to make it harder for people, especially people of color, to vote.
As the Associated Press reported, conservative activists have declared this an "all-hands-on-deck" situation for the GOP. Without massive, racist voter suppression, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas argued in a call with Republican state legislators, Democrats "will win and maintain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and of the state legislatures for the next century."
Clearly, separating voters of color from the ballot is a top priority for Republicans. And yet, all week, Republican arguments against both bills were a joke, ranging from outright denials of reality to arguments so ridiculous that it was surprising they were able to keep a straight face while making them. Republicans, it appears, can't be bothered to make a substantive case for what is their number one issue.
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The arguments made by Republicans and conservative activists against D.C. statehood, for instance, were so bad that even junior high school debate kids would be embarrassed to offer them.
The Heritage Foundation's Zack Smith, arguing against DC statehood, says DC residents "already impact the national debate" because members of Congress see their yard signs while driving to work. pic.twitter.com/g7fV3TopCX
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) March 22, 2021
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., in tones of maximized faux outrage, complained that D.C. would be the only state "without an airport, without a car dealership." That's not true, however, it does have a car dealership. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., insisted that D.C.'s lack of manufacturing, mining, or agriculture disqualifies it from deserving equal voting representation in Congress. As the Revolving Door Project pointed out on Twitter, this argument relies on assuming "public sector work is somehow unworthy." And what these arguments elide, of course, is that what D.C. has is people — more people than states like Vermont and Wyoming. Congressional representation, after all, is not about car dealerships or farms, but about people. And despite their goofy arguments about airports and yard signs, it's the people of D.C. — who are 46% Black — Republicans really object to letting vote. But they know that outright saying so reveals their true motives, which are deeply racist and anti-democratic.
Over in the Senate hearing about H.R. 1, Republicans' strategy was largely to pretend that their war on voting is "fake news" concocted by liberals. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., flatly lied to reporters, claiming, "states are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever." Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said it was a "false narrative" that "states are passing massive legislation that changes the voting structure to people's disadvantage."
This is, of course, not true in the slightest. Republicans on the state level have rolled out at least 253 bills to keep people from voting. Blunt pretended this didn't matter because so few have passed this legislative session, but that's largely because most states are early in their sessions and haven't finalized the bills for passage. They fully plan to do so. And that's on top of the wave of previous voter suppression from the past few years that was unleashed when the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
When Republicans were forced to acknowledge the efforts at voter suppression this week, their true ugliness came out.
Discussing a Georgia proposal to ban Sunday voting, an obvious effort to end the "souls to the polls" Sundays practiced by many Black churches in the South, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., decided to God-splain Christian ministers. She claimed Republicans are just interested in forcing people to "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy." This would not only be a violation of the First Amendment prohibition of government dictating the religious beliefs of citizens, but was also just plain hypocritical lying on Hyde-Smith's part. A quick perusal of her Twitter feed shows that she's only too happy to cheer on college basketball games held on the Sabbath.
Cruz, who got lurid with his racist fantasies, whined that H.R. 1 will "promote widespread fraud and illegal voting" and insisted repeatedly that "illegal aliens" would vote. This is, of course, flatly false. But Cruz is just taking a page from Trump, who spent months equating legal votes from Black and Latino with "fraud," not out of any evidence but out of a conviction that such people shouldn't have the right to vote in the first place.
The battle over voting access has, of course, partisan implications. Republicans clearly believe, as Cruz said on the reported call, that their party cannot win without massive, racially targeted voter suppression. Democrats, on the other hand, believe — with good reason, as the Democratic wins in Georgia's January Senate run-offs show — that the more diverse the voting population, the better they will do. Unfortunately, these realities have caused far too many journalists to reach for the comforting both-sides-do-it frame.
it's a joke for anyone in Congress to pretend that there's some principle, rather than partisanship, driving them on DC statehood. Republicans oppose it because it would give Dems more power, which is why Dems want it.
But none of that accounts for the 700,000 DC residents.
— Edward-Isaac Dovere (@IsaacDovere) March 22, 2021
This kind of practiced cynicism may make journalists feel hip, but it's misleading, as The Atlantic's Isaac-Dovere even kind of admits in his tweet. It doesn't really matter if politicians have self-interested reasons. What matters is the larger moral argument at stake. On that front, Democrats and Republicans couldn't be more different. Democrats are making a substantive, moral argument that every citizen has a right to vote, regardless of race, geography, or ethnic origin. Republicans, on the other hand, have such blatantly racist and immoral arguments that they can't even speak their own reasons out loud. Instead, they rely on lies and comically dumb arguments to waste time during hearings.
Ultimately, Republicans know it doesn't matter if they have substantive arguments. They're depending on the continued existence of the Senate filibuster to keep H.R. 1 or D.C. statehood or any other bill to secure voter rights from ever touching the Senate floor. Defenders of the filibuster claim that it encourages robust debate and discussion. As Republicans demonstrated this week, however, the opposite is true. Republicans don't even bother to offer a real defense of their own views, because they don't have to. All they have to do is block bills from ever reaching the Senate floor. For those who know their own policies are indefensible, the filibuster is their best friend. It must be reformed, if only to force Republicans to start actually explaining themselves — which they know they can't really do — to the voters.