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Mitch McConnell, Enemy of the Vote

Jamil Smith

Suppressing votes is not merely a racist act, nor it is simply the last resort for a party out of ideas. Voter suppression is traitorous. Intentionally restricting access to the ballot is a violation of the ideals that we have been told are inherently American. The United States government is of, by and for the people. Yet we are barred from the fundamental democratic process by those in power merely because our skin color predicts our political persuasion. The Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby vs. Holder decision should have had people marching in the streets to restore that landmark civil rights legislation to its full powers — or at least made that a key topic of the subsequent presidential election. We are lucky if outlets use “racially tinged” or other cowardly terminology to reference it. Voter suppression is not an accident, as Chief Justice John Roberts would have us believe, some benign exclusion from the small-d democratic process. It is a form of violence.

Mitch McConnell is okay with this. The Senate Majority Leader, the longest-serving Republican to ever hold that position, all but admitted on the Senate floor Wednesday that having more Americans vote is bad for the Republican Party. H.R. 1, the omnibus package of ethics and civil rights reforms proposed by the newly elected House Democratic majority, was McConnell’s target.

One day after the House Judiciary Committee had  its first hearing for H.R. 1, the testudinate majority leader mocked the bill that would make Election Day a holiday for federal employees and encourage private businesses to do the same.

“Just what America needs, another paid holiday and a bunch of government workers being paid to go out and work for I assume our folks — our colleagues on the other side, on their campaigns,” McConnell said, essentially promoting President Trump’s invented framing that all of the furloughed federal workers during the shutdown were liberals. He added, “This is the Democrat plan to restore democracy? A brand-new week of paid vacation for every federal employee who would like to hover around while you cast your ballot?”

McConnell’s histrionic floor speech echoed a remarkable bit of projection that he published on January 17th in the Washington Post. Alleging that H.R. 1 should be called the “Democrat Politician Protection Act,” his rather hysterical op-ed warned that the bill was not about making elections fair, but about having the government control them. H.R. 1 would actually do serious injury to gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts, which in various states serve as the Republican Politician Protection Acts. In addition to the Election Day holiday, H.R. 1 would end partisan redistricting, create automatic voter registration, prohibit voter roll purging and would recruit additional poll workers to help ease the experience of voting.

It would be wrong to describe H.R. 1 as a cornucopia of liberal goals. The vast majority of Americans polled want Washington to fight corruption, which the bill does. And an October survey by Hill.tv and HarrisX found that 54 percent of respondents preferred that everyone have a day off work on Election Day. Even 48 percent of Republicans supported the idea. Pew Research Center found in October that 65 percent of the public wants such a holiday.

Several on the left noted that McConnell essentially said the quiet part out loud Wednesday, admitting that an Election Day holiday would hurt Republicans, since their fortunes improve when fewer people vote. But this is more serious than a political leader committing a gaffe and revealing his villainy.

Without justification or provocation, McConnell painted federal employees — many of whom have not yet received financial restitution from a 35-day shutdown that he helped prolong — as polling-place thugs. This wasn’t just McConnell admitting what we all knew to be true about the GOP; it was the majority leader slandering people who work for the United States government and certainly don’t have a Congressional microphone to defend themselves.

Whether such language will have a suppressive effect on federal employees the next time they go to the polls is yet to be seen. I bet a lot of them will tell him to go to hell. He bears just about as much responsibility as Trump for the absurd shutdown that cost all those those federal employees and contractors 35 days of pay, which some may never recover. McConnell could have amassed a mere 20 Republican votes to join with the 45 Democrats and two Independents to form a veto-proof majority to once again pass a bill that his Senate had already passed by voice vote in December to end the shutdown sooner. Instead, he refused to even call a vote for a bill that “the president will not sign” until the final week of the shutdown, essentially ceding the branch of government he leads to a renegade president who was holding the country hostage.

McConnell does not seem to be similarly animated about the continued threat of foreign interference in our elections. Earlier this week, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats released a new worldwide threat assessment in which he argued that Russia, China and Iran “probably already are looking to the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests” and “will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships and shape policy outcomes in the United States and elsewhere.” The Daily Beast also reported that Russia’s GRU, its military intelligence agency, has been caught trying to infiltrate the computers of a Washington think-tank called the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Many are still wondering why Republicans blocked $250 million in funds last fall to enhance election security, but then months later cheer on a president who shuts down the government over $5.7 billion for his fantasy border wall? It doesn’t matter whether Republicans were complicit in foreign election interference. That interference helped elect Trump, and it is allowing the GOP to continually destroy our democracy. Whatever moral compromises and treachery is necessary to help McConnell and his party confirm conservative judges at a manic pace, they seem all too willing to do it.

The Russians failed to make a noticeable dent in the 2018 midterm elections, but not for a lack of trying. Still, McConnell and the Senate caucus he leads haven’t lifted a finger to make the nation’s electoral infrastructure more secure after our intelligence agencies concluded that we were attacked in 2016. Former vice-president Joe Biden alleged that the Obama administration’s response to the Russian election interference was slow-walked thanks to McConnell, which the Majority Leader denies.

McConnell’s behavior should disturb us.

It is somehow fitting that the man who blocked Merrick Garland from a Supreme Court confirmation hearing would declare H.R. 1 dead on arrival a month before it ever was debated on the House floor. In the same early December Wall Street Journal report in which he predicted that lawmakers would avoid a government shutdown, McConnell said that the omnibus Democratic reform bill is “not going to go anywhere in the Senate,” where Republicans hold 53 of the 100 seats.

McConnell isn’t betraying America merely because he is going against popular opinion. As he did by withholding the Garland pick, he is subverting democracy once again at its baseline level. Even worse, McConnell is targeting efforts to make the system fair, painting them as totalitarian while he holds the door open for actual despots seeking to muck with our ballots. His odd sycophancy to Trump, a man whom he clearly shares little in common with other than preferences for judicial picks, has been the story of the last two years. However, going forward, we should give McConnell more credit for his own villainy. He has earned the recognition.