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Protecting voting rights must be Congress’ top priority | COMMENTARY

How the GOP would defend voting rights. (David Horsey/The Seattle Times).
How the GOP would defend voting rights. (David Horsey/The Seattle Times).

The devil is in the details. That’s a common expression often used in legislative bodies. Legislation is complicated. Advocates and opponents can make all kinds of claims about what a proposal does or does not do, often without fear of contradiction. Even some lawmakers can’t be bothered with the actual reading of bills that go on for dozens of pages in complex, often arcane, legal language. Yet it’s the little things that matter. In this instance: Election Day voting hours, rules for poll observers, mail-in ballot requirements, drop boxes. What one side calls “election reform” can really be a bold attempt to skew the results by discouraging minority participation.

This week, President Joe Biden gave one of the more forceful speeches of his presidency, condemning nearly two dozen Republican efforts at the state level this year to make it harder to vote. He called it un-American and likened it to the Jim Crow restrictions of the past.

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Many Republicans in Congress just sort of laughed it off, pointing to the ongoing battle in Texas, where a proposed law is so restrictive, it led 51 Democrats to flee Monday, hopping a couple of charter flights from Austin to Washington, D.C., to prevent the Republican-controlled state legislature from attaining the quorum needed to conduct business and move the bill forward. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatened their arrest and said they were spreading “misinformation” about the legislation, which is rife with subtle (and not-so-subtle) attempts to reduce Democratic turnout, especially among lower income people of color.

The measure would lift restrictions on Republican poll watchers, who could intimidate Black and Latino voters as they have done in the past. It would ban the use of drop boxes for mail-in ballots, prohibit the auatomatic mailing of mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters and outlaw drive-through voting sites, like those that were successfully used in the Houston area last year to allow tens of thousands of voters in Texas’ most racially diverse county to cast their ballots. See the pattern? Devil in the details. And we could go on: from a new requirement that mail-in ballots have special numeric IDs (drawn from the voter’s driver’s license) to potential criminal prosecution for helping someone fill out his or her mail-in ballot.

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The real misinformation we’ve seen peddled regarding Texas’ measure is the notion that it — like similar efforts already approved in Arizona, Georgia, Florida and Iowa — is merely an effort to prevent voter fraud. That sounds reasonable, until you recognize another important detail: There is no serious problem with voter fraud. This has been proven repeatedly. Not just by Democratic elections officials, but by Republicans, too, in courts run by Republican-appointed judges, no less. And it was confirmed in the last election by every reputable effort.

This all-out assault on voting demands more than harsh words. It ought to spur action from Congress and the Biden administration. Yet it’s clear there’s only one meaningful way to do that. To pass voting rights legislation, whether through Maryland U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes’ For the People Act or the less ambitious John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act or something else, will require modification to the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule, if not its elimination entirely. It’s obvious that Republicans senators stand united against the sanctity of voting rights. They see only their own self-interest. And the Supreme Court’s conservative majority isn’t going to stiffen the voting rights enforcements of the past under existing laws.

President Biden may have faith in his former colleagues in the Senate to eventually do the right thing. He may believe attacking the filibuster rule now may doom his efforts to pass a $3.5 trillion domestic spending plan at least partly on a bipartisan basis or harm the interests of Senate Democrats should they become the minority party in 2022 or thereafter. But the stakes are too high for voting rights to take a back seat to matters of spending or political ambitions. Not that infrastructure isn’t important; it is. Not that we favor more partisanship; we don’t. But the importance of free and fair elections rises above such matters. The right to vote must be safeguarded. It must be upheld as sacrosanct.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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