The Future of Voting Rights


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In dozens of states, the Republican Party has responded to Donald Trump’s defeat by trying to change election laws, often to make voting more difficult.

The Democratic Party is struggling to figure out how to respond.

And voting-right experts are worried that the result could be the biggest rollback of Americans’ voting rights since the demise of Reconstruction in the 19th century.

First, some background: Trump did not start this trend. For more than a decade, Republican politicians — often worried about their ability to win elections in a diversifying country — have tried to reduce voting access. But Trump’s defeat and his repeated claims about voter fraud (almost all of them false) have lent new energy to the effort.

Legislators in Georgia are pushing bills that would make it harder to register and harder to vote by mail. Arizona, Pennsylvania and several other states are also considering new restrictions on mail voting. The Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank in New York, has counted 253 bills across 43 states seeking to tighten voting rules, as The Times’s Michael Wines has noted.

It’s a reflection of a widespread belief among Republican officials that high voter turnout hurts their chances of winning elections. They may be wrong about that: As the Republican Party has become more working class, it has attracted many supporters who vote only occasionally.

Still, Republican candidates will probably benefit from any changes that disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters, like the elimination of automatic registration. “The restrictions we’re seeing are going to have a greater impact on the communities that have been most traditionally disadvantaged,” says Myrna Pérez, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center.

Democrats, along with any Republicans and independents who favor wider voting access, have three possible ways to respond. One of those three will be on display today at the Supreme Court.

The court will hear a case from Arizona in which Democratic officials are challenging two state provisions. One requires the disposal of any ballots cast at the wrong precinct, and another forbids people — like church leaders or party organizers — to collect absentee ballots for submission. The Democrats argue that these provisions especially affect minority voters and thus violate the Voting Rights Act. (Adam Liptak, The Times’s Supreme Court reporter, explains in more depth here.)

The Arizona lawsuit is an example of a main way that advocates have tried to protect voting rights over the past few decades: through the courts. Along the way, they have won some victories, including in a recent case from North Carolina.

But they have usually lost. The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has generally ruled against voting-rights advocates, and most court observers expect the justices to allow Arizona’s restrictions to stand.

If anything, the justices may use the case to issue a broader ruling that endorses other voting restrictions. “I think the real question here is not what happens to these particular restrictions,” said my colleague Emily Bazelon, who’s covered fights over election laws. “It’s the test the Supreme Court imposes for future challenges to more onerous restrictions, more of which are coming down the pike.”

Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told me that he thought Democrats had made a mistake in bringing this case. “If you’re a voting-rights lawyer, the last place you want to be right now is the Supreme Court,” Hasen said.

Other than the courts, the other two main voting-rights battlegrounds are state governments and Congress.

But state governments are hard places to protect voting rights today, because Democrats control only 15 of them — and none in swing states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. The Democrats’ biggest problem in many states is the failure to develop a message that resonates not only with college graduates and in major metropolitan areas but also in blue-collar and rural areas. Republicans have compounded that issue through aggressive gerrymandering, including in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

The remaining option for voting-rights advocates is Congress — and Democrats now control both Congress and the White House.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would expand voting rights, and President Biden supports it. It would guarantee automatic voter registration and widely available early voting and mail voting, among other steps. For the bill to have any chance in the Senate, however, Democrats would need the unanimous support of their 50 senators, and they would need to scrap or alter the filibuster.

The debate over the filibuster can sometimes seem theoretical. But voting rights is one of the tangible ways in which it matters. If the filibuster remains in place, voting rights in the United States will probably be in retreat over the coming decade.

A different G.O.P. approach: In Kentucky, Republican state legislators are working with Democrats to expand ballot access while also strengthening election security, as Joshua Douglas of the University of Kentucky has explained for CNN.

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Penguin Random House, the biggest book publisher in the U.S., is in the process of buying Simon & Schuster, a deal that would create a megapublisher responsible for roughly one-third of published books. But the deal requires approval from the Biden administration — and some authors’ groups and other organizations are calling on the Justice Department to block it, as a violation of antitrust laws.

Critics say the merger would create multiple problems, as our colleague Elizabeth Harris writes. Many authors could receive less money, because fewer publishers would exist to bid on their proposals. Writers without a proven track record might struggle to be published at all, and the industry could become even more dependent on blockbuster titles.

“There are projects that would have sold for $150,000 years ago that might not sell at all now to the big five, whereas the book that would have sold for $500,000 might go for a million,” one literary agent told The Times.

Still, many people in publishing consider Amazon the biggest threat to the health of the book business. “If it’s correct to worry about a merged company that publishes perhaps 33 percent of new books,” Franklin Foer wrote in The Atlantic, “then surely it’s correct to worry more about the fact that Amazon now sells 49 percent of them.”

The New York Times

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