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PROVIDED WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA -- President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama join, from left, former first lady Laura Bush, Rep. John Lewis and former President George W. Bush and others for a prayer during the event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015.

Today is the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday when African Americans peacefully demonstrating their desire to exercise their right to vote were met at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by Alabama state troopers swinging batons and shooting tear gas.

Images of police wailing away at Black people in their Sunday best persuaded iconic U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Illinois, to co-sponsor voting rights legislation President Lyndon B. Johnson was pushing and to bring along enough Republicans to pass it into law over strong Southern Democratic opposition.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 essentially dismantled the poll taxes, literacy tests and other barriers to minorities from participating in elections.

Things have changed.

On Tuesday, a conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments that the Act couldn’t be used to undermine voting restrictions — put in place by Arizona Republicans and opposed by the Democratic secretary of state — that disproportionately impact minority access to the polls.

On Wednesday, 220 members of the Democratic majority in the U.S. House approved legislation that would expand early voting and mail-in balloting to allow greater participation of working people. All the 209 Republicans participating, including Louisiana’s congressmen, voted against “For the People Act of 2021.”

U.S. Rep Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, tweeted: “Every single American should be OUTRAGED,” because Democrats voted to “permanently expand mail-in voting.”

Former President Donald Trump called the bill a “monster” last week.

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin says, “I don't think the federal government should be telling states how to run their elections.” But he’s OK with national commissions providing voluntary guidelines that “states can adopt them fully, partially, whatever they want.”

Democratic supporters of the law argued urgency as Republican-controlled state legislatures scramble to change voting laws to, the GOP says, provide greater security and confidence in the voting process.

Trump continues to claim his reelection was stolen by widespread fraud. Though providing no credible evidence, the drumbeat of conservative bloggers, talking heads on radio and television, email trollers and others continue the narrative that the election was mired in fraud.

Even Ardoin was hit last week by ricocheted shrapnel from this narrative as he had to set aside, again, efforts to replace Louisiana’s fleet of 30-year-old voting machines.

“There’s a lot of belief out there that there was fraud nationally in regards to the machines. I’m not an IT expert and don’t know if they were hacked into or not, but a lot of my constituents sure feel that they were,” said state Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia. “There’s a lot of unease about the mail-in ballots.”

More than 250 bills up for consideration in 43 state legislatures would restrict voting access, primarily by limiting mail-in ballots, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. Mississippi and Texas each have eight bills.

On Monday, the Republican-dominated Georgia legislature approved measures that restricted ballot drop boxes, limited early voting and required additional identification for absentee ballots.

That’s not to say that all states are rushing pell-mell to erect ballot box barricades. Fourteen state legislatures are reviewing legislation that would expand early voting and 11 others would make mail-in ballots a permanent feature.

Only one bill concerning voting, so far, has been filed for the upcoming Louisiana legislative session that begins in five weeks on April 12, though more are expected, said state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, of Slidell, and Rep. John Stefanski, of Crowley. They chair the committees hearing election-related measures.

One thing is certain, however, and that’s Louisiana GOP legislators don’t see any continuation of the expanded use of mail-in ballots forced on the state by a federal court for the November and December elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think that people are ready in Louisiana to expand any mail-in process like that. I think the sooner we get back to what we have done, the sooner the better," said state Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican who ran for secretary of state in 2018. His views mirrored statements of other Republicans who hold huge majorities in both chambers.

On the other side, New Orleans Democratic Rep. Mandie Landry, who unsuccessfully pushed mail ballots in the past, said this year’s fiscal session, which limits lawmakers to five bills not dealing with taxes and spending, will limit some of the voting legislation being talked about by lawmakers. The pandemic exceptions showed that mail balloting allowed more voter participation and helped registrars count the ballots more easily.

“I don’t know what someone who would want to restrict voter rights would point to, to justify further restrictions,” she said.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.