At the same time state legislators are restricting voting rights, they are also on track to set new records on restricting abortion, and they’re targeting transgender youth with an avalanche of horrific bills.
On Thursday, Georgia state Representative Park Cannon knocked on the door of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office with the goal of simply watching him sign an egregious voter suppression bill into law. Knowing this bill would most directly impact the Black voters of Georgia who have helped set our country on a new path, Representative Cannon—a young, queer, Black woman who has been in the state legislature since 2016—understandably wanted to bear witness its signing. But Governor Kemp chose to sign it behind closed doors surrounded by six other white men.
To be clear, this bill is an affront to democracy and to decency; another Georgia elected official, Representative Renitta Shannon, rightfully called it “a voter suppression bill on steroids that targets Black voters.” Since Georgia is a testing lab for other state legislatures, this bill threatens not only the rights of Georgians but also potentially the rights of millions of Americans to participate in our democracy.
Instead, we all watched on Thursday night as Representative Cannon was forcibly dragged away by Georgia state troopers, arrested and charged with obstruction of law enforcement and disrupting general assembly sessions.
While Rep. Cannon’s arrest struck a chord, the scary truth is that states have been advancing bills to suppress democracy at an alarming speed over the past few weeks, with little public attention, using Trump’s big lie of a stolen election—a pathetic and demonstrably false claim—to push for policies that cement their power at the state level.
We must remember: Many states are already deeply gerrymandered and consequently suppress the will and interests of the people they are supposed to serve.
Georgia’s attacks on voters—which among other outrageous components, makes it a crime to offer water or food to people waiting in line to vote—is only one of a troubling trend happening right now in states across the country.
Conservatives have introduced over 253 anti-voter bills in 43 states according to the Brennan Center, and the numbers continue to grow. Michigan just this week saw a collection of 39 separate bills introduced to make it harder to vote; Iowa, Texas, Arizona and others are advancing similar bills. Their ultimate goal is to maintain power and win elections by cheating. If you’re making it harder for people to vote—especially Black and Indigenous People of Color—you have no moral ground on which to stand.
Trampling on our basic rights to vote and participate in our democracy is the thread that, when pulled, unravels the whole sweater. At the same time state legislators are restricting voting rights, they are also track to hold unfortunate new records on banning and restricting abortion, and they’re targeting transgender youth with an avalanche of horrific bills related to their ability to get health care, to play sports, and to otherwise be recognized and treated as the precious kids they are. Once our votes are suppressed, their power to enact a harmful, violently conservative agenda, banning abortion entirely and enforcing strict and harmful gender roles, will only grow.
How does this happen? How are states able to pass extreme laws that are so far out of touch with the will of the people? We have to face the fact that our systems are fundamentally designed to protect the people who created them, often at the expense of anyone else.
State legislatures are inherently designed to uphold the status quo. They hold an enormous amount of power, passing tens of thousands of laws every year, but they are 80 percent white; overwhelmingly male, with women comprising only 30.6 percent of our country’s 7,383 state legislators; and state legislators are generally older and wealthier than the people they serve. The nature of these institutions are often part-time and low-paid yet demand intense and inconsistent hours through the year, posing challenges for anyone who does not have generational wealth, scheduling flexibility, or someone to manage household affairs and children.
A new report by NOBEL Women and State Innovation Exchange shows that Black women comprise less than 5 percent of state legislators—Black women like Park Cannon, who said when she was released from jail late Thursday night, “I am not the first Georgian to be arrested for fighting voter suppression. I’d love to say I’m the last, but we know that isn’t true.”
It’s people of color who organized and voted to beat back fascism in November, but somehow our state legislatures remained nearly completely unchanged. Look to Wisconsin, where Joe Biden won 49.4 percent of the vote but Republicans retained 61 percent of all state legislative seats. This is the result of decades of conservatives holding and securing even more power at the state level by limiting democracy to only a select few, exactly as Georgia did last night.
That’s why states like Alabama and Ohio can ban abortion early in pregnancy even though not a single state wants it. That’s why the American public, who support ending the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, are still waiting for action so we can end the gridlock in Washington. It’s why common-sense gun safety measures are still lacking nationally despite a clear mandate from the American people. And it’s why we need to not only protect abortion rights, protect trans kids, and protect voting rights but also rethink and reimagine our governing structures and systems so they can truly be by and for the people.
It’s simple. If you are making something harder to do when that something is neither illegal nor immoral—be it have an abortion, vote or play on the middle school sports team that is appropriate for your gender—you’re on the wrong side of history and you’re abusing the trust of the people who elected you. That’s not public service. We can and must do better.