States’ rights are out of control. Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to roll them back

Carli Pierson
·4-min read

Since President Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump, at least 250 new laws have been set forth in 43 states to limit mail-in voting, early in-person and Election Day voting, according to a Washington Post investigation.

With full knowledge that marginalized communities and communities of color and Black people in particular vote Democrat, Republicans in states like Georgia, Missouri and Texas continue to spew lies about voter fraud in unsubstantiated arguments that such measuresprohibiting the distribution of water to voters, requiring vote organizers (deputy registrars) to be deputized in each county they register votes, and bringing in needlessly strict voter ID requirements — will somehow prevent this nonexistent mass voter fraud problem. There’s a simple solution to this Republican madness: States’ rights urgently need to be reeled in.

Frederick Douglass—the most photographed man of the 19th century — was a genius, autodidact, prolific writer, activist, and speaker who escaped enslavement and went on to write three autobiographies (and their revised editions), countless newspaper articles and speeches. He also wrote on the exact issues we’re facing today: “If the general government had the power to make black men citizens, it has the power to protect them in that citizenship. If it had the right to make them voters, it has the right to protect them in the exercise of the elective franchise. If it has this right, and refuses to exercise it, it is a traitor to the citizen. If it has not this right, it is destitute of the fundamental quality of a government and ought to be hissed and hurried out of the sisterhood of government, a usurper, a sham, a delusion and a snare.

“On the other hand, if the fault is not in the structure of the government, but in the treachery and indifference of those who administer it, the American people owe it to themselves, owe it to the world, and to the Negro, to sweep from place and power those who are thus derelict in the discharge of their place in the government who will not enforce the Constitutional right of every class of American citizen.”

If Douglass were alive today, it seems clear that he’d be as concerned about a host of other racial justice issues as he was the incipient hatred of Black people that spawned the State’s Rights Doctrine of the Reconstruction era. States’ rights — a buzz phrase that since its inception has been related to southern states’ attempts to hold onto slavery — are wildly out of control and Americans continue to pay the consequences in blood.

Take, for example, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas’ decision to eliminate mask mandates, during a pandemic where people of color have died in disproportionate numbers. Or, Missouri’s radical abortion restrictions, which have only served to create dangerous conditions for young women who must look to interstate travel or back-street, clandestine procedures like the one my great-grandmother died from. For generations, Americans have borne witness to state-sanctioned shootings of unarmed Black people, mass shootings perpetrated by citizens, and endemic gun violence against women and children in private homes as the NRA lobbies against gun restrictions. Young Black men and teens die of gun-related homicides at 20 times the rate of their white peers in the same age group.

There are, of course, solid reasons for states’ rights, and good examples of when they were exercised to the advantage of American citizens. Indeed, many saw states’ rights as the only barriers that prevented this nation from complete demagogy under the Trump administration and his Republican-led Senate.Hawaii was the first state to sue the federal government over the former president’s Muslim travel ban. California took the lead in fighting back against Trump’s draconian environmental decisions. Officials in cities like Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York declared themselves sanctuary cities in opposition to federal law enforcement’s efforts to hunt down undocumented immigrants.

Such examples demonstrate just how fine a line the federal government and Democrats must walk in an attempt to rein in rogue states that want to disenfranchise Black and other marginalized voters. While wrestling with the GOP’s attempts to effectively disenfranchise thousands, it’s important to maintain a baseline of states’ rights for that terrifying “if and when” moment that we face another Trump, or Trump-ish, presidency. It’s clear, however, that right now we’ve swung too far in the other direction. When state exceptionalism is used as an excuse to strip citizens of their Constitutional rights, Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to challenge it.

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