Opinion | We need to talk about voter suppression in Pennsylvania

By India Krug, Staff Columnist

Watching the video of Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon being removed from the Georgia State Capitol, I could feel my face grow hot. I knew that I wanted to write about the attacks on voting rights that have been happening across the country and, yes, definitely in Pennsylvania.

When we talk about modern-day voter suppression, we have to start with Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that targeted the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s preclearance process. The process required specific regions of the country — determined by a coverage formula based on their history of voter suppression — to have their new voting laws approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Court declared the formula was unconstitutional because it had not been updated since 1972, but was still being used.

Justices Clarence Thomas and John Roberts argued that preclearance was no longer needed because the voter suppression problems that initially justified it had since been eliminated. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg commented that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

The ruling dismantled the most valuable protection of the Voting Rights Act and tasked Congress with replacing it. Many organizations, such as the NAACP, worried that this would leave many Black voters and voters of color vulnerable to disenfranchisement — and they were right. Just hours after the Supreme Court decision, Texas proposed a strict voter ID law and began redrawing legislative maps.

More than 1,000 polling places have closed and at least 23 states have passed restrictive voter laws since the 2013 ruling. This has made the voting process less accessible for many Americans.

Over the past decade, we have witnessed attacks on voting rights in Pennsylvania. In March 2012, then-Gov. Tom Corbett, R-Pa., signed a voter ID bill into law. The bill, which a majority of Republican legislators voted for, required voters to present a form of photo identification, such as a driver’s licence, at the polls. Considered one of the most restrictive voting laws in existence, Pennsylvania Democrats argued that it targeted many communities vulnerable to disenfranchisement. It turned out that was the plan all along, considering then-state House Majority leader Mike Turzai said the law would “allow Gov. [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” After much turmoil, a Pennsylvania judge struck down the law in 2014, arguing it placed an unreasonable burden on people trying to exercise their fundamental right to vote.

Gerrymandering, or manipulating the boundaries of districts to favor one party, has also been a problem in Pennsylvania. After the Republican-controlled legislature released a new congressional map in 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional. The state court gave the state legislature about a month to produce a new map that was not based on a Republican partisan gerrymander, and the Pennsylvania GOP appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a hold on the ruling. When the Supreme Court dismissed the case and the legislature’s time was up, the state court drew new congressional districts.

Now, Republican state lawmakers are going after judges. Their plan is to replace statewide judicial elections with district ones. So rather than voting for all seven Supreme Court justices, 15 Superior Court judges and nine Commonwealth Court judges, voters would be limited to one for each bench, from their district. These geographical districts, of course, would be drawn up by the state legislature. Republican Rep. Russ Diamond, who introduced this bill, said he believes it is unfair that most appeals judges come from Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, the two biggest in the state. This bill is clearly targeting Democratic constituencies.

A study conducted by the Brennan Center found that Pennsylvania is currently a leader in proposed voter suppression legislation — a whopping 14 bills introduced so far this year alone. There are some to eliminate early voting, instill harsher signature-matching requirements, reject all ballots not received by election day and require voters to present ID at polls. Three bills would end universal mail-in voting entirely. Let’s talk about those.

Republican state lawmakers overwhelmingly supported mail-in ballots in 2019, and for years, research has shown that Republicans benefit from absentee voting. Older voters tend to be Republican, and mail-in voting means they don’t need transportation to the polls. But once mail-in ballots were used to expand voting across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, state Republicans changed their tune. Some, such as state Sen. Patrick Stefano, are proposing legislation to repeal part of the very bill they voted for in 2019.

Republican arguments for these types of bills rely on claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, although they continue to be proven false. Nearly every Republican lawsuit in Pennsylvania was denied or withdrawn, and then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election. Additionally, Republicans have attempted to equate discrepancies in how mail-in ballot issues were handled to illegal election interference.

The bottom line is, voter suppression is American tradition. Just as our wooden-toothed Founding Fathers did not want minorities or women voting because it threatened their power, every gerrymandered district and polling place closed is an attempt to protect white supremacy. The burden of undoing this damage should not fall on activists of color either — it is the responsibility of everyone to uplift one another.

We need to actively combat voter suppression in every town and state across the country. The first thing you can do is stay informed about what bills are on the table, such as the proposed judge elections. You can find out who your representatives are, and keep track of how they’re voting using services such as Legiscan. Supporting statewide organizations such as ACLU Pennsylvania, the Movement Voter Project, Keystone Votes and Common Cause Pennsylvania can also be helpful.

On the national level, call your representatives and tell them to vote “yes” on legislation such as HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. HR 1 recently passed in the House, and although it is not perfect, its initiatives include making voter registration more accessible, providing suffrage to all felons who completed their sentences and expanding early/mail-in voting. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore the protections of the VRA that were lost after Shelby County v. Holder.

All of this helps, but change starts on the local level. Ask your community members, especially those of color, about their experiences or challenges while voting. This will allow you to identify problems in your area and work toward solving them. Get in touch with your town’s NAACP, League of Women Voters or county elections office. Host voter registration drives at your school or around your town.

And, finally, Pennsylvania GOP — we’ve called your bluff time and time again. Tell me how you think the 2020 presidential election was rigged and I’ll respond with a fact-check. These attempts to keep people from the polls reveal a humiliating truth — you must not believe you can win on your own merits.

India writes primarily about politics for The Pitt News. Write to her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @indialarson_.