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Sensemaker: Voting rights and wrongs

Sensemaker: Voting rights and wrongs

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Stephen Breyer’s retirement from the US Supreme Court started the formal search for his replacement, who President Biden has said will be a Black woman. 
  • Virginia Giuffre’s lawyer welcomed Prince Andrew’s demand for the claim that he sexually assaulted her to be tested at a jury trial in New York.
  • Spotify removed Neil Young from its platform after he said it had to choose between him and the podcast host Joe Rogan (more below).

Voting rights and wrongs

The world’s most powerful democracy has a problem – with democracy. As the US tries to impose its authority in Central Europe, Congress is at war with itself over voting rights and election security.

Republicans fret about fraud and fiddle with the electoral map. Democrats fear disenfranchisement, especially of non-whites. They have tried and failed to reform the system, and that failure could cost them at the polls in ten short months. 

The harbinger. This week, Tennessee’s Republican-dominated state legislature approved a new, gerrymandered congressional district map that wipes out a Democratic stronghold in downtown Nashville by dividing its voters between three deep-red conservative suburbs. 

Democrats gerrymander too, but in this ten-yearly redistricting cycle Republicans have the upper hand because they control more of the state assemblies that redraw the maps. The Freedom to Vote Act would have outlawed partisan gerrymandering. Last week it died in the Senate.

So what?

The problem. Election day in 2020 delivered record turnout, but absentee ballots and postal votes became a target for Trump after his defeat. Spurred on by his baseless claims of widespread fraud, Republican state houses have since moved to tighten voting rules. 19 states introduced 34 restrictive laws in 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. 

  • In Georgia, where Trump tried to browbeat the Secretary of State into “finding” votes in 2020, new laws give people less time to request postal ballots; impose stricter ID requirements for absentee ballots; and limit the availability of dropboxes for mail-in ballots. The legislation looks a lot like retaliation for 2020: new rules remove the Secretary of State from the State Election Board. 
  • In Texas, drive-through and 24-hour voting has been banned. Both are said to have been disproportionately used in 2020 by non-white voters fearful of catching Covid in long polling station queues.
  • In Florida, more ID is now needed for absentee ballots and there will be fewer after-hours drop boxes – which critics say people of colour need more than whites because it’s harder for them to take time off work to vote. 

Republicans say the measures don’t discriminate on the basis of race but do protect elections from fraud (and the perception of fraud, which Trump has harnessed so successfully).  

Biden’s plan. He backed two bills as the centrepiece of a “defend democracy” agenda in answer to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign: 

  1. The Freedom to Vote Act – to standardise voting rules and broaden access to elections. It covered gerrymandering (see above), voter ID, early voting, absentee ballots and campaign finance laws. 
  2. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act – to reverse a 2013 Supreme Court decision that got rid of parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That act required states with a history of discrimination against people of colour to get “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before passing new election rules. 

The verdict. Both bills were blocked by the Senate. All 50 Republicans rejected them as a federal assault on states’ rights to run their own elections and as a needless response to state laws that – they claimed – did little more than unwind measures introduced for Covid. Two Democrats administered the coup de grace by refusing to suspend the Senate’s 60 vote filibuster to get them through on a simple majority.

What went wrong? The White House couldn’t ignore a clamour for voting rights reform from the left of the Democratic party and 250 unions and other groups, but neither Biden nor Vice President Harris – who was assigned the brief – got properly behind it. Biden made clear his priority was to seek bipartisan backing for his Build Back Better bill, and there was never any serious prospect of Republican support for the thesis that Republicans were on a racist mission to subvert American democracy.

The upshot. Failure on voting rights reform is a political embarrassment for Biden and a blow to Democrats’ morale, which is already in a trough as midterms loom. Will it make a difference in November and 2024?  

Yes: With no ban on partisan gerrymandering, Republicans can tighten their grip on states like Tennessee. With no standardised rules on monitoring election officials, they could be intimidated again by partisan observers in states like Georgia. 

But: neither voting rights bill would have addressed another part of the process Trump tried to subvert: counting electoral votes in Congress. A bipartisan group is examining possible changes to the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law that outlines the process for counting and certifying the result of the election. The goal is to prevent what happened to the 2020 election from happening again in 2024. 

“The problem isn’t that our elections are broken or somehow illegitimate,” writes Larry Hogan, the moderate Republican governor of Maryland. “The problem is that politicians continue to manipulate the truth about our elections to serve their own interests.”

Hogan for president?

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The needle and the damage done
It’s 52 years since Neil Young wrote Ohio – still one of the greatest ever protest songs. He hasn’t given up on activism just yet. Spotify has started the task of removing his songs from its platform after he issued a me-or-him ultimatum about its willingness to host the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Young was objecting to the Covid misinformation repeatedly peddled by Rogan. Spotify presumably thought it was an easy call and favoured its $100 million-acquisition flagship podcast over the back catalogue of an old musician who millions of younger listeners won’t know. Two thoughts occur: spare us from tech platforms that shirk responsibility for the material they host; and isn’t it great to have Neil Young speaking for science and reason on Covid while another old rocker Eric Clapton is out there being an anti-vaxxer repeating the same rubbish as… Joe Rogan?

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Dogs and people
It is increasingly hard for Downing Street to argue that Boris Johnson did not lie when he insisted last year he had nothing to do with the decision to evacuate the former Royal Marine Pen Farthing and 160 stray dogs and cats from Kabul, prioritising their evacuation over that of Afghan people desperate to get out. Two developments yesterday dragged the story of Farthing’s animal charity into the furious debate on Johnson’s fate: an email was leaked from the office of Zac Goldsmith at the Foreign Office stating that “the PM has just authorised” the evacuation of Farthing’s staff and animals. And Sky News reported that Trudi Harrison MP, Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary, personally sought to charter a private jet to get them out, saying her “boss” was keen. Either she was freelancing and taking his name in vain, or we’re learning new but depressingly unsurprising things about the judgments of a thoroughgoing populist. Johnson continues to deny any involvement.

New things technology, science, engineering

Collision course 
An amateur rocket-tracker who worked out that a rocket launched by SpaceX was going to hit the moon has had his calculations confirmed by other space-watchers. The conclusion, with echoes of Don’t Look Up, is that after seven years in a chaotic orbit around the Earth, a Falcon 9 booster launched in 2015 will crash onto the far side of the moon on or around 4 March. It will hit at nearly 6,000 mph and leave a crater, but nothing the moon can’t handle. It’s “built to take this sort of abuse,” Bill Gray told the Washington Post, talking about the moon, not the rocket. This will be the first crash of its kind, but not the first-ever by an object launched from Earth. Soviet Russia deliberately crashed a rocket on the moon in September 1959.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Abortion and death
The family of a pregnant Polish woman who died of sepsis is blaming the country’s highly restrictive abortion laws for her death. The woman, Agnieszka T, was pregnant with twins; one died on 23 December, but her family say hospital staff refused to perform an abortion because the second foetus was still alive. According to the Guardian, the hospital waited until the heartbeat of the second twin stopped before performing the abortion, but it was too late to save the woman’s life: she died on Tuesday. A law introduced last year banned nearly all abortions in Poland, except in cases of rape and incest or where the mother’s life is at risk. The highly restrictive law is causing hospitals to endanger women’s lives: in September, a 30 year-old pregnant woman died of sepsis after being refused an abortion when her waters broke prematurely.

covid by numbers

86 – countries with less than 40 per cent of their population immunised by the end of 2021. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Transition by the numbers
Exactly how much investment will be needed to reach net zero goals by 2050? A new estimate from McKinsey says the world will need to spend $9.2 trillion every year on low carbon infrastructure, energy systems and land-use change – $3.5 trillion more than current capital spending on assets for the transition. Fossil fuel-producing countries will need to invest more of their GDP in the transition than others (18 per cent on average) while developing countries will need to invest around 10 per cent. And there’ll be upsides aside from the obvious one of preventing catastrophic warming. 200 million new jobs will be created, including 8 million in renewable energy, replacing 185 million positions that won’t be needed.

Thanks for reading. Do share this around, and let us know what we’ve missed.

Ella Hill

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell.

Edited by Giles Whittell and produced by Phoebe Davis. 

Photographs Getty Images

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