NSDC Civics 101

Installment #7

The Right to Vote, Best Weapon to Fight For Democracy

By Alice Fried

American democracy is hanging by a thread because of voter suppression.

Fifty-six years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, expanding the right to vote to tens of millions of disenfranchised Americans. This set our country on a path toward establishing a true multiracial democracy. In 2020, two thirds of the eligible voting population voted, more than in any other election in 120 years. Yet, voter suppression continues to be an attack on democracy, a government of, by, and for the people.

Even though there are no laws that specifically state that Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, the Asian-Pacific population, and college students are prohibited from voting, this doesn’t mean voter suppression isn’t real. Aggressive Republican voting restrictions are ripping the fabric of citizenship in response to the proliferation of the big lie about the legitimacy of President Biden’s election; because of massive, historically disenfranchised voter turnout; and because of redistricting and gerrymandering. The result—our democracy is crumbling. In addition, here in California, we can add the recall election to that list of attacks to a democracy built on the concept that the voting majority rules.

Perhaps a little history can give perspective to this phenomena. Southern states were rife with White supremacy after Reconstruction. Whites-only democratic clubs and their armed militias set out to so-call, purify the ballot box in many southern states. Political violence, assassination and lynching enforced White rule at the expense of Black lives and Black voting rights.

In 1886, in a Texas precinct, when Black poll workers dared to fight back, three were lynched by a mob. Although no one was ever brought to justice for this heinous murder, the national outrage compelled Congress to hold hearings on voting practices plaguing the South. The result was the Federal Elections Bill of 1890. This legislation promised federal intervention to protect the right to vote in any state where it was threatened. The bill passed the House, but unfortunately the Senate was unable, or perhaps, unwilling to overcome a filibuster threat. Afterwards, throughout the former Confederacy, Whites-only primary laws and additional forms of Jim Crow voter suppression, including poll taxes, literacy tests and extraordinary residency requirements, were put into effect.

It took 75 years of a relentless voting-rights movement before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voters Rights Act into law, a law that was stripped in 2013 by the Supreme Court, of its critical federal preclearance requirements for new state voting laws. Today, there’s the proposed John Lewis Voting Rights Act that undertakes restoring federal protection for everyone’s right to vote; and the For the People Act that passed in the House during the 116th Congress in 2019. This transformative, comprehensive legislation promises to overhaul voting rights, money-in-politics, redistricting government transparency and ethics, and was introduced as H.R. 1 on January 4, 2021.

This bold democracy reform package is designed to make our democracy more inclusive, but history is repeating itself. Despite the massive November 2020 voter turnout, or perhaps because of it, many states have aggressively metastasized voter suppression in the form of voter ID laws, polling closures, drop-box reductions, and racially gerrymandered districts. Voters have faced a plethora of obstacles, including but not limited to, long lines and wrongful purges of voter rolls. More than a dozen states have enacted new laws to make it easier to restrict voting access calculated to reduce the voter power of Black and Brown ethnicities, the poor, the young, as well as the old. And just like the Federal Elections Bill of 1890, the For the People Act has been thwarted by the threat of a filibuster in the Senate, raising the risk of dooming the bill to failure.

We the people must express our national outrage and relentlessly lobby elected officials to vote for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to restore rather than decrease protections and reforms that will make elections more accessible to elevate the voice of all Americans. We must seize this opportunity and rise to the challenge and encourage, not discourage, voter registration. H.R.1 promises to upgrade the voter registration process through the expansion of automatic voter registration, online voter registration, and same-day registration. We must implore Congress to strengthen, not weaken our democracy, and implement these policies nationwide to reject racist, unjust, and anti-voter measures, in order to repair our political system.

Populations and demographics change. Some districts gain residents, others lose them. Redistricting is the redrawing of district boundaries every ten years to make sure that each district has about the same number of people, and representatives reflective of that electorate. Gerrymandering, on the other hand, is the manipulation of district lines to protect or change political power to lock in a disproportionate share of seats, or to disadvantage certain racial or ethnic groups. Such manipulation affects what laws are enacted as well as which party can win elections. This distorted representation can create an environment in which the voting majority may not see their preferred policies enacted, establishing an un-democratic voting minority rule government.

The Republican California Recall is a clear and present dangerous example of a voting minority rule power grab. With a confusing ballot, and the persistent exploitation of Covid fear and policy ignorance, the Republicans have given themselves a good chance to overturn the result of a voting majority general election outcome. This override of a voting majority is another means to suppress the collective voice of California voters.

We the people should participate in community mapping exercises. We must advocate for the passage of the For the People Act, (H.R.1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, designed to nullify voter suppression by addressing redistricting reform measures in addition to restrictive voting practices. Otherwise, suppression and oppression can become the norm. California residents must Vote No on the Republican recall and crush the voting minority power grab.

Considering the complexities of human nature, a government of, by and for the people is a lofty ideal to reach. And, in its pursuit, democracy imperfections are revealed and exploited, guaranteeing that the fight for democratic governance is a forever endeavor. Therefore, citizen participation is critical in the fight for democracy. And the perfect weapon with which to fight this never-ending imperfect battle is the right to vote. To quote John Lewis: The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. People bled for it; died for it. Honor their sacrifice. Vote!

I can’t understand why some believe their freedoms are more important than others; that their opportunities are more deserved than others; that government laws should protect them more than others; that their mistakes are less accountable than the mistakes of others; that their religion is more realistic than others; that their humanity and dignity are more valuable than others; that their vote should count, while the votes of others shouldn’t.

What I do know is that Democracy, as imperfect as it is, by constitutional edict as well as by definition, (a government of, by and for the people) promises equality and inclusion to All. And while the promises of Democracy are presently teetering on the brink of collapse with this infusion of restrictive voting opportunities, as well new partisan vote-counting regulations, not to mention a voting minority power grab, we the people, especially Democrats, have got to step up and honor the blood and lost life sacrificed to make sure that there’s not only equal access to voting, but the right to vote—Democracy’s weapon against tyranny—if we are to keep hope alive and to have a fighting chance in the ongoing battle for everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.