I remember the morning I flew home to vote. I was working in London on temporary assignment. It was a presidential election year, so I planned my next trip home on voting day. My flight back to San Francisco took eleven hours. However, since Britain was also eight hours ahead of California, I thought I’d just make it. I was determined.
Word had gotten out in my office that I was flying for the sake of the election and a couple of colleagues were curious. They asked me why I was doing it and seemed a little incredulous. Parliamentary democracy is different. In the UK you don’t vote directly for the top leaders. You vote for a party and hope that your party wins a majority so that its leader will be appointed as Prime Minister by the Queen. No one elects the Queen. So, having traveled and lived abroad, I felt genuinely proud to be an American. I told them I believed in participating in our democratic process. Most importantly, I wanted to be sure George W. Bush did not win.
By every measure, most Americans agreed with me. On election day 543,895 more ballots were cast for Al Gore than for Bush. The vote was so close in Florida, however, that it could not be called on election night. This was critical, since its 25 electoral votes meant that it could swing the election. What happened next was the unthinkable. As the votes were being carefully counted throughout the state, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in and stopped the process. They shut down the count and handed the presidency to the Republican, George W. Bush.
I remember those days when hanging chads were debated and afterward. It’s when our democracy stopped being one. When I think about it now, I cringe inside. I should have been in the streets. We should have been in the streets. We should have protested just as loudly then as people are marching on Washington now. In retrospect, I believe this is the moment that opened the gates for Republicans to throw caution to the wind. They stopped hiding under the cover of democracy and have spent every year since dismantling our right to vote — denying the will of the majority of Americans.
I blame myself and I blame us all, but I understand what happened.
Like most Americans, I was raised to believe that laws were created to ensure that the world was a fair place. I was taught that fairness — the golden rule — was paramount. In elementary school and beyond, our democratic system has always been described to me as the best in the world, a model for other nations to follow. And, like most of us, I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed that my democracy — one in which every voice was important and valued — was the rule of the land.
People who didn’t believe in majority rule were the outliers. Besides, we had laws to protect us and keep the wolves at bay. So, when the Supreme Court stepped in, I was like a deer in the headlights. My mind could not compute. Neither could anyone else I knew. It was so unimaginably wrong, that we froze. No huge marches (at least outside of Florida) to express the outrage we felt in our hearts. Twenty years later, we are paying the price — and it’s a terrible one.
We are in trouble, people. Real, dangerous, existential, life-threatening trouble.
From the founding of the republic, wealthy White men have always sought to hold the reins. Women’s suffrage, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and every battle in the courts has fundamentally been about whether to grant or deny the will of the majority of Americans. Even the electoral college was a compromise. It was invented specifically to appease southern White legislators who won the right to count three-fifths of an enslaved African American population in setting the number of electoral votes for their states. This meant that from 1787 forward, our nation has been unevenly influenced by southern states not based on the number of actual voters, but by using silenced Black bodies to put their foot on the levers of power without actually being accountable to the majority. Effectively, the Electoral College has functioned like gerrymandering on the presidential level.
Since everything we know is on the line right now, a brief review of recent events is important:
2009: ALEC approved model legislation that would prohibit “certain forms of identification, such as student IDs”. This attack on voting rights has been used as the legislative model for Tea Party organizers and Republican legislators who enacted new law such as Wisconsin’s Voter ID Law.
2011: “More than 30 state legislatures considered legislation to make it harder for citizens to vote.” Over a dozen of those states succeeding in passing these bills.
2012: Under the guise of fighting voter fraud, conservative legislators pushed through new voting laws in several states. Many young people, people of color and anyone who preferred to register at the post office was blocked and even kicked off the rolls. Across the country 1,688 polling place closures occurred between 2012 and 2018.
2013: The Supreme Court (made more conservative by G.W. Bush’s appointments) rolled back section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In effect, removing every one of its teeth. Despite mountains of evidence of increasing voter suppression, Chief Justice Roberts stated in his decision brief that the act was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”
2016: Fourteen states enacted voter suppression laws; nearly half of them in states that were “previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act”. Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 2.87 million votes but lost to Donald Trump in the electoral college.
The numbers do not favor Republicans, which is why President Trump has made conspiracy theories about voter fraud and mail-in ballots a core message of his re-election campaign. After a briefing on democratic voting proposals he declared: “The things they had in there were crazy… They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” To be clear, levels of voting means the amount of turnout. Yet in response to the President’s twitter attack on voting by mail, even Fox News’ Chris Wallace could not keep up the charade: “I’ve done some deep dive into it, there really is no record of massive fraud or even serious fraud from mail-in voting.”
Today, Republican election supervisors across the country are closing hundreds of voting sites during state primaries. Last Tuesday Mitch McConnell’s supporters in Kentucky closed over 3,000 voting sites. Closings were so extensive that only one site opened in Louisville, which has a population of 600,000. Primary voter turnout was expected to be unusually high.
On June 9th, Georgia failed to provide working voting machines in multiple locations. The Chairwoman of the Democratic party received 84 texts reporting problems at the polls within 10 minutes of the polls opening at 7 a.m. In at least one location, no voting machines ever arrived. Remember, too, that in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, primary voters were forced out to cast ballots only to find many polling locations closed in Florida, Illinois and Arizona. There is every reason to expect that these tactics will continue through November unless we apply heavy pressure in every state. What I find most terrifying however, was the report by NBC News on June 9th: Republicans are recruiting an estimated 50,000 volunteers to act as “poll watchers” in November, part of a multi-million dollar effort to police who votes and how. If this is not voter intimidation, I don’t know what is.
Back in 2012, while President Obama was running for his second term, I was living on California’s Mendocino coast. It’s an idyllic rural area nestled along Highway 1, which winds along rocky cliffs marking the western edge of American soil and features breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. I joined a local group of women who wanted to work on the elections and other issues that were important to most Democrats. Over lunch we came up with a list of eight topics to choose from and agreed to narrow it down to one or two next time we met. What could be more American?
There was nothing on this list that I disagreed with. I certainly wanted to see more progress on climate change, to halt the march of corporate finance into elections, to strengthen gun control, support gay marriage, protect abortion rights, etc. But the one that concerned me the most was Voting Rights. It was my contribution to the list. When we met again, I knew by the look on the other faces and the sudden tension in the air that this one was dead last in everyone else’s mind. I made my case, but they all believed that other issues were much more urgent. Eight years later, everything we cared about is at a crisis point.
So, what does this really mean? Well for starters, it means that if voter rights had not been consistently undermined, it is most likely we would have had Democratic presidents continuously since 1992. It means that what most of us have been taught about American democracy is an ideal, but no longer a reality. The struggle for civil rights won us a brief window of approximately 50 years. Elections were more inclusive. That window is closing. Unless we are prepared to fight for the right of every citizen to vote and have that vote counted, we will lose the right to govern as a majority altogether.
For those who question whether our vote matters, imagine what life would be like today if Bush or Trump had not won. I know some folks don’t want to support a Democratic ticket, preferring a more progressive presidential candidate. I understand the sentiment. However, I must urge you to consider the consequences. One look in the mirror after nearly four years of the Trump administration should make this a non-starter. I’ll save my comments on fascism and Trump’s penchant for Nazi symbolism for another article.
Bottom line, if you believe in gun safety, a woman’s right to choose, that Black Lives Matter, that our national forests are to be protected and not sold off to the highest bidder, or any of the myriad of economic, social and political issues that define the majority view in America you must vote. To my White readers let me say that this is one of the most important actions you can take to support Black Lives Matter. It is imperative that no one’s vote be thrown into the bin that African American ballots have so often been tossed. Today, your vote is sitting right there at the bottom of the barrel too.
If this is not voter intimidation, I don’t know what is.
My liberal White friends living up in the redwoods had no interest in taking on voting rights because they did not see it impacting their own lives. As a person of color, it has always been clear to me that voting rights are central for everyone in a democratic society. This might be hard to swallow if you don’t believe that your own voting power is at stake. But look at the elections over the last twenty years. Clearly, when people of any background are denied the right to vote, the ballot of every American who wants to live in a world where fairness still matters is in jeopardy.
Make no mistake, the right has other ideas:
Registering the poor “to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.”
~Conservative columnist Matthew Vadum
This article first appeared in MEDIUM.