A year ago, on 6 January 2021, an angry mob stormed the US Capitol building.
Their motivation was that they didn’t believe Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election — or they didn’t want to believe it — so the crowd forcibly entered the Capitol building to try and stop the certification of the election by Congress. They’d been drawn to Washington, DC by the former president Donald Trump, and at least some of the pack had attended a rally in support of Trump before storming the building.
When Congress reconvened a number of Republican elected officials voted against certifying the results. These included officials who represented Pennsylvania and Michigan, states where absentee votes, which were counted later, had pushed Biden over the finish line. Trump lied that Detroit, in Michigan, had more voters than people; at one point, Trump’s legal team tried to stop the counting of votes in Philadelphia. In addition to their practice of counting absentee ballots after election day, Philadelphia and Detroit have many black American voters. So, too, does Atlanta, Georgia, another state where Trump tried to cast the election results into doubt (in the case of Georgia, he went so far as to tell Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, to “find” over 11,780 votes, which would have flipped the state from Biden to Trump).
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The undercurrent of the 6 January is that there are people in the United States who believe that some voters, and thus some votes, are more legitimate than others. Certain people’s voices should be heard; others should not. There are people who are comfortable saying so directly: “Everybody shouldn’t be voting,” John Kavanagh, a state representative from Arizona, said last March. “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”
The project of making it more difficult for some eligible voters to vote than others did not, of course, begin in the 2020 presidential election. Laws were passed for this purpose from the end of the Civil War in 1865 and throughout the period known as the Jim Crow era, up until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law and prohibited racial discrimination in electoral practices. That law was effectively gutted in 2013, when the Supreme Court decided that states with a history of passing discriminatory voting legislation no longer had to seek federal approval before implementing electoral reforms. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, argued that such laws were no longer relevant or necessary.
Following the 2020 presidential election, a host of such laws have been passed. They will make it more difficult for people to vote, and voting rights experts are concerned that they will make it more difficult for black Americans in particular to vote. Some passing these laws and conducting audits of the 2020 election argue that they are doing so to restore confidence in elections. Republican senator Josh Hawley from Missouri, who voted against the certification of election results from Arizona and Pennsylvania, made a similar argument following the 6 January: the people questioning the results had a right to be heard. Unsaid was that the rights of those doubters would supersede the rights of the people whose votes would be thrown out.
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We should remember 6 January 2021. We — journalists, and Americans, and people who care about democracy — should remember what it felt like to watch people storm the building to challenge the results of a US presidential election. But more than that, we should remember why they stormed the building. It was because this overwhelmingly white mob — which brought a Confederate flag, a symbol of secession from the United States over the right to slavery, into the Capitol with them — believed Trump was re-elected as president, yes, but the underlying conviction was that their votes were more valuable, and more legitimate, and the ones that really mattered. That this was their country, and their democracy.
And it is theirs. The problem is that it isn’t only theirs. And they — the people who stormed the Capitol on 6 January, and many who encouraged and enabled them — would rather burn it down than share it.
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