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Beyond Alabama: Why is America still fighting over voting rights 52 years after Selma? | Will Bunch

With an anti-Trump wave about to the polls in 2018, will the GOP double down on voter suppression? What a special election in the state that gave us Selma's "Bloody Sunday" tells us about the state of voting rights in America.

Supporters stand outside encouraging for people to vote after Democratic senatorial candidate Doug Jones spoke at a campaign rally Sunday in Birmingham.
Supporters stand outside encouraging for people to vote after Democratic senatorial candidate Doug Jones spoke at a campaign rally Sunday in Birmingham.Read moreBRYNN ANDERSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

If you spent any time online this past week, you probably saw the viral video of a 33-year-old woman named Nuris Bigelow, bundled in her down jacket against the unseasonable December cold and wiping the moisture from her eyes as she prepared to vote for the very first time, in the epic Alabama Senate race that on Tuesday saw victorious Democrat Doug Jones shock the GOP and the nation.

"My eyes just burning. … Ain't nobody crying," said Bigelow, with a look of happiness that undercut her words to the reporters interviewing her outside a polling place. Suddenly, she exalted: "My vote counts!"

Here's the backstory: Bigelow and thousands of Alabamians like her had until recently been denied their voting rights because of a past criminal conviction — many of these involving a lesser nonviolent offense. The state recently amended that law to restore the ability to vote to people like her — one small step for humanity against the crimson tide of voter repression that has otherwise spread across America — but then didn't spend any money to actually tell the affected voters about the change. That job fell on political activists like Kenneth Glasgow, a Dothan, Ala., minister who spent months scouring southeast Alabama and registering thousands of new voters.

New voters like Bigelow were a huge factor in what proved to be a narrow, 21,000-vote win for Jones in a state where Democrats hadn't won a Senate election since 1992 (and that senator, Richard Shelby, soon switched parties to the GOP). Voter turnout in Alabama's black community, where much of the registration work was concentrated, rose to where African Americans were 30 percent of the electorate — higher than their percentage of the population (26 percent) and a greater turnout than when Barack Obama was atop the ballot in 2008 and 2012. And so for all the drama over Republican Roy Moore's shameful past or Jones' position on abortion rights, the Alabama election may have hinged instead on something we supposedly settled a half-century ago.

Who gets to actually vote.

With the proverbial eyes of the nation on Alabama on Tuesday, the glass of sweet democracy was only half-full, meaning it was also half-empty. The reality is that the cascade of new voters didn't only propel Jones to victory, but they also were needed to overcome thousands of other would-be voters who were barred from the polls in a violation of their constitutional rights. The biggest factor pushing things in the other direction is a much-discussed voter ID measure that Alabama enacted in 2011 and that became law two years later after the John Roberts-led U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that might have allowed federal officials to nullify it. (Not coincidentally, the suit against the Voting Rights Act had been brought by Shelby County, Ala., an overwhelmingly white and Republican exurban enclave just south of Birmingham.)

Since Alabama's voter ID law has been enforced, studies have shown that voter turnout in racially diverse counties has dropped 5 percent and that there are 118,000 state residents with a valid voter registration who don't possess a valid photo ID — a disproportionate number of those black or Latino. That's the most high-profile barrier to voting in Alabama — much like similar laws in a growing number of other states — but it's not the only one.

Groups like the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law that monitored Tuesday's voting in Alabama reported scattered problems ranging from voters who requested absentee ballots and did not receive them, to long lines at some polling places that might discourage some voters, to a large number of voters certified as "inactive" who had to re-certify their credentials. One 29-year-old woman who was one of a host of "inactive" voters at her polling place in Alabaster noted that the form to vote required applicants to list the county where they were born — which could be a huge obstacle to someone born, say, in a different state a long time ago.

That doesn't even touch the issue of mass incarceration, which has radically altered the politics of many states but especially Alabama and 10 other states that make it the hardest to restore voting rights after a felony conviction. Experts noted Tuesday that black women in Alabama voted at a substantially higher rate than black men — some of that may been enthusiasm, but a lot of it was simply because so many more men have been imprisoned. As much as 2.5 percent of the potential American electorate is barred because of criminal convictions — a situation that doesn't exist in any of the world's other advanced democracies. Maybe America isn't as advanced as we'd like to think.

The current state of play when it comes to voting rights is not acceptable anywhere. It's especially galling to see these problems in Alabama — the state where marchers like Rep. John Lewis and his allies took police blows to the head, where activists like Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo sacrificed their lives, and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ultimately achieved one of his greatest triumphs in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, all to successfully pressure Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. It was a Hollywood ending … until it wasn't. And while some voting rights advocates are understandably eager to bask in the afterglow of Jones' inclusive victory, things could get worse nationwide before they get better.

In the hours after the stunning election outcome, conspiracy theorists on the far right insisted that the only way a Democrat could have won in a blood-red state like Alabama must have involved "voter fraud" — even as any evidence of that was lacking, to say the least. "I have no doubt Roy Moore won & voter fraud gave it to Jones," one partisan tweeted. Soon, the size and the outlandishness of the allegations grew.

"Just reporting the rumor." It's easy to laugh it off, but let's remember that the Alabama election highlighted something else — that in the midterm election next fall, under an increasingly unpopular President Trump, the Republican Party is going to need every weapon in its arsenal to hold on to as many seats as it can. Does anyone doubt that voter suppression — stricter enforcement of the voter ID laws that are on the books in so many GOP-leaning states, closing polling places in nonwhite neighborhoods or near college campuses, or shorter voting hours and other restrictions — will be a vital part of that 2018 playbook? Especially with Republican candidates having no achievements — except, perhaps, a massive tax cut for the wealthy and large corporations — to run on.

The challenge for progressive-minded candidates and voters going into 2018 is quite simply this: Do not treat voting rights as a footnote. For American democracy to survive, and ultimately thrive, the unfettered ability for citizens to walk into a voting booth and cast their ballot has got to be a front-burner issue. Democrats or any other progressive candidates next fall need to make it clear that their Day One priority will be not only to restore those sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the Roberts Court (in response to the pleas of white Alabama Republicans), but to offer new protections that would thwart these measures like discriminatory voter ID laws hatched in the years since the Selma marches, and perhaps embrace radical new ideas like Saturday elections.

It's an insult to the brave souls who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge 52 years ago that America has to keep fighting this fight. But they've left us no other choice.