A democracy is a government whose powers are created by the consent of the governed as expressed through fair and free elections. All citizens are considered equal, and their voices carry equal weight.
It is no secret that the United States does not function this way. It wasn’t until 1868 that the 14th amendment guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law, and it took our country until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to even approach having free and fair elections. For centuries, the voices of wealthy white males have weighed more than those of women, people of color, or low-income workers. Even today, voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, and gerrymandering mean our elections remain unfair—the voices of many continue to be suppressed and silenced. In North Carolina, for example, electoral districts used since 2012 include twenty-eight racial gerrymanders—districts created in ways that unconstitutionally undermine voters of color. Even the new electoral lines, supposedly drawn to correct this problem, still include twelve districts that are either racial gerrymanders or otherwise violate the state constitution. Meanwhile, in Texas, a federal court ruled that two of that state’s districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that discriminated against Hispanic voters. On September 12th, however, the Supreme Court blocked this ruling, meaning that these discriminatory districts will remain in place until the Court hears appeals. As a result, the 2018 elections in Texas may well be conducted with these illegal districts still in place.
These are just two examples. In reality, gerrymandering is happening all over the country. Although the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned racial gerrymandering—which Bill Blum describes as “the practice of purposely designing electoral districts to dilute the voting power of minorities by either ‘cracking’ or spreading minority voters across a state to diminish their relative strength, or by ‘packing’ minorities into a few concentrated districts to drain their influence in other parts of the state”—it is still happening under the guise of partisan gerrymandering, the practice of creating electoral districts that favor the political party currently in power. To make matters worse, as technology improves, lawmakers have more sophisticated data to inform their drawing of district lines. In the words of Michael Li, an expert in redistricting at NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, “Gerrymandering used to be a dark art, and now it’s a dark science.” It should be considered in opposition to the principle of free and fair elections, but the Supreme Court has never come out and made such a proclamation. (Take a look at this article for more information on an upcoming case that will provide the Court an opportunity to do so. And for more detail about the chilling reality of gerrymandering in our country, read David Daley’s excellent Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy.)
Matters are only made worse when a foreign power—cough, cough: Russia—meddles in elections that already are not affording equal opportunity for political expression. While our legislators—and the current administration—purport to be very much in favor of keeping elections secure and fair, many of the current laws suppress votes from people of color and low-income workers. The ACLU notes that, “Over 30 states have considered laws that would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote” and that “Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such an ID and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain one or forego the right to vote entirely.”
Moves to actually create a more secure voting system are not being taken seriously; for example, even mere debate on Klobuchar-Graham amendment to the defense bill—which would have taken steps to secure our state and local election systems from foreign influence by helping states block cyber attacks, by securing voter data and registration logs, and by upgrading election auditing procedures—was blocked because lawmakers could not agree on which amendments were worthy of getting floor votes. And, of course, Trump’s voter fraud commission is working to disenfranchise citizens rather than to secure the right to vote. The commission has set its sights on the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which bars states from forcing new voters to provide proof of citizenship, and, most recently, the commission is considering the idea of requiring that every citizen pass a federal background check in order to be able to participate in the most basic tenet of democracy. Yes, that’s right, the same folks against background checks for gun-owners are in favor of them for folks simply exercising their fundamental right to vote.
Even so, don’t despair. As I mentioned in my last post, admirable legislation is out there too, and we can urge our representatives to support it. One example is the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2017 (H.R.2978/S.1419), which would strengthen the federal government’s ability to stop discriminatory voting practices in states and localities. The bill would proscribe last-minute polling-location changes (which have been used to deter minority voters), impose more oversight in states and localities with a pattern of discrimination, and improve voting rights for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. We can protect the sacred right to vote by urging our representatives to stand up for this core value of democracy.
1. Take a stand against gerrymandering
- Call: Your State Legislators (Look up)
- Script: “Hello. I am one of your constituents in [ZIP], and I am calling because I am deeply disturbed by partisan gerrymandering. I believe that it is absolutely necessary for our lawmakers to do everything in their power to support free and fair elections. Will Sen/Rep [NAME] commit to supporting nonpartisan redistricting so that every citizen’s vote really will weigh equally?”
“Trump’s ‘Election Integrity Commission’ was convened under the guise of rooting out supposed ‘voter fraud’ in the 2016 election. But its true purpose is to justify voter suppression laws across the country, despite voter ID and other discriminatory suppression laws being struck down as unconstitutional in courts. We should be sending a unified message as a country that we stand for PROTECTING the right to vote and against discrimination in all its forms—especially in the wake of Charlottesville and the rise in activity by white supremacist hate groups like the KKK.”
3. Ask your MOCs to support the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2017 (H.R.2978/S.1419)
- Call: Your MOCs (Look up)
- Script: “Hello. I am a constituent from [CITY, STATE or ZIP] calling to ask that Sen/Rep [NAME] support the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2017 (H.R.2978/S.1419). This new, flexible, and forward-looking set of protections will provide modern, flexible protections to combat voter discrimination across the country. Can I count on Sen/Rep [NAME] to support his bill?” (Adapted from the ACLU)
- Sign the Petition
4. Oppose the voter commission’s attempts to restrict voting rights
- Call: Your state’s head of elections (use the list below the map to find your state’s elections office website ).
- Script: “Hi. I am from [ZIP], calling to ask that [name] refuse to cooperate with the president’s voter commission. I am one of a growing number of Americans who oppose this commission because we don’t trust its agenda or its leader.” (from Jen Hofmann’s Action Checklist for Americans of Conscience)
5. Sign up to become an Election Security Leader with Secure Our Vote
- Fill out this form and Secure Our Vote will provide you with information about how to get involved in the campaign for election security in your community.
- From their website: “Winning more secure election systems starts from local alliances of election officials and voters like you working together for the voter verifiable voting systems with paper backup and solid ‘double check’ audit laws that can catch hacks and errors.”