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Column: States succumb to legislative malpractice

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a news conference at the Polk County Sheriff's Office, on Monday, April 19, 2021. The governor signed into law a new riot bill, surrounded by law enforcement, legislators and police union representatives. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

For the Valley News
Published: 5/1/2021 10:00:12 PM
Modified: 5/1/2021 10:00:10 PM

You would think that in the wake of a crushing pandemic that has lasted well over a year and an economy on the ropes, state legislatures around the country would be eager to address the needs of their constituents. Instead, many of these states have elected to tilt at windmills.

Georgia stands out as one example. Following an election that saw the unprecedented participation of citizens both in the November election and the January runoff, the Republican-dominated Legislature decided it was time to clamp down on voting.

Don’t we all agree that the democratic process functions better when more people participate? Apparently not. For the Republicans in Georgia, this voter turnout was unacceptable (likely because they didn’t particularly care for the outcome), so they passed a series of restrictions, including a prohibition on providing food or water to those waiting in line to vote.

As a friend of mine noted, this legislation effectively outlaws Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10, where he says that those who offer “a cup of cold water” will not lose their reward in heaven.

Republicans in Iowa have been busy as well, not easing the burdens of their constituencies but passing all sorts of nonsensical legislation. Rather than provide the necessary funding for public education, one of the cornerstones of democracy, the Legislature passed a bill that effectively provides public funding for private, including religious, schools. Another bill likely to pass would stiffen penalties against those engaged in protests and would grant civil immunity to a driver who strikes and injures anyone participating in a “protest, demonstration, riot or unlawful assembly or who is engaging in disorderly conduct and is blocking traffic in a public street or highway.”

The First Amendment? The “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances?” As they say in the Bronx, fuhgeddaboudit.

In Arizona, Republicans in the state Senate remain obsessed about the 2020 election results, in which the Democratic nominee for president prevailed for the first time since 1996. Despite two previous reviews that yielded no signs of widespread voter fraud, the senate Republicans ordered yet another audit, this one on the 2.1 million ballots of Maricopa County alone, and appropriated $150,000 to fund the effort. The Republicans claim, without evidence, that Donald Trump actually won Arizona by 200,000 votes.

“They’re trying to find something that we know doesn’t exist,” Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, said about the claims of fraud. “It’s ludicrous that people think that if they don’t like the results, they can just come in and tear them apart.”

Like their counterparts in Georgia, Texas and other Republican-dominated legislatures, Republicans in Arizona are trying to limit voting access. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 361 bills have been introduced in state legislatures to restrict access to the ballot in one way or another. Many of them have a good chance of being enacted into law.

In terms of legislative chicanery, however, Florida is in a class by itself. The Republican-controlled Legislature is also advancing legislation banning the distribution of water to voters — what is this Republican obsession with water? — but they are also seeking to limit the availability of drop boxes for ballots, all of this despite the fact that even the author of the legislation declared that Florida’s election last November was the “gold standard” for the nation. (Trump won the state by more than 370,000 votes.)

When one of the Democratic opponents of the bill protested that there was no evidence of tampering with the drop boxes, something that election officials confirmed, the sponsor justified his bill by saying, “things can happen.”

And Florida Republicans, not to be outdone by their Iowa counterparts, have passed a bill redirecting taxpayer money to private institutions and another clamping down on “riots,” defined as at least three people who pose a “clear and present danger” to someone or something.

I wonder if that definition applies to police officers arresting a black man for a traffic violation.

The final example of overreach in Florida is a bill, passed by both houses and headed to the governor, that will allow students in state colleges and universities to record professors’ lectures — without their consent — in an effort to root out what the sponsors describe as “Marxist professors and students.” These schools must also conduct an annual survey to determine how well intellectual freedoms are protected on their campuses.

The real problem with runaway legislation like this is that it provides fringe and radical groups — white supremacists or Holocaust deniers or those who assert, contrary to all historical evidence, that the United States is a “Christian nation” — an opening to peddle their nonsense under the cover of “intellectual freedom.”

As I’ve argued many times, colleges and universities are inherently conservative institutions in that scholars must prove that their methods and conclusions adhere to professional standards. The academic peer-review process is hardly infallible (I have my own quiver of anecdotes), but it serves as a safeguard against irresponsible and dangerous rants passed off as scholarship.

Surely, during the worst pandemic in more a century, these legislators can find something better to occupy their time than suppressing voting, limiting the right to protest or whittling away at academic freedom.

Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth, is the author of more than a dozen books, including Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life.

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