Voting Rights Defeatism is Toxic

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Over the last two days I’ve seen several mentions of one argument about what happened in the Georgia 6 special election. Simply, it goes like this: Democrats were stupid because it was obvious they wouldn’t win as long as so many potential voters were disenfranchised either by felony disenfranchisement, onerous voter ID laws, permissive voter roll purges or other laws that limit voting. Nothing will change until that changes.

This is profoundly misguided and demoralizing when it comes to the effort to actually bring about change.

Let me start by saying this. I think I am on strong ground in saying there is no publication in the United States over the last two decades which – relative to staff size – has devoted more resources to reporting about voter suppression in its numerous legal and sub-legal guises. I would even say that some of the best reporting at other publications has been done by reporters who learned the story working at TPM. My point here isn’t to brag or say we’re the only ones on this (not remotely true) but to establish what I think is our demonstrated focus on this issue over many years, proof in focus and commitment of how important we believe this issue is in American public life.

But the simple fact is that Democrats or anyone who believes in voting rights will need to win elections under the current restrictive system to be able to change laws to change that system. The fact that that is challenging and unfair doesn’t change the reality of it. There’s no getting around this basic fact.

Lawyering and lawsuits of course play a critical role but as I think the vast majority of civil rights lawyers will tell you, lawsuits are inherently limited in their ability to effect change. They are most potent in limiting the destructive effect of restrictionist legislation by running them through the obstacle course of constitutional prohibitions. At the end of the day, however, judges are appointed by elected officials. So there are profound and inherent limitations on what can be accomplished in the courts.

I think most people who are concerned about this issue and are working for change will recognize what I’m saying and agree with it. It’s not that I think I’m the only one who’s thought of this. But the way this is messaged creates a toxic form of  defeatism about the possibility and necessity of winning elections in the restrictionist system to be able to be able to change the system.

Elections can definitely be won under the current voting regime. Is it harder for Democrats? Yes. Is it fair? No. But lots of things aren’t fair. This is one of them.

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