The power of the ballot

George Gresham | 10/2/2014, 4:24 p.m.
One month from now, our nation’s voters will head to the polls.
Polling station voters sign Nia Sanders

One month from now, our nation’s voters will head to the polls. I hope they do so in large numbers. Midterm elections usually generate lower voter turnout—approximately 40 percent—than presidential elections, sometimes with dire consequences.

The last midterm election in 2010 swept right-wing legislators into statehouses across the nation. Those legislators and governors proceeded to turn back the clock on workers’ rights. In the name of budgetary and fiscal responsibility, they passed close to 1,000 bills designed to weaken or destroy unions and take away workers’ rights in the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions.

Many of the right-wing-dominated legislatures also instituted restrictive measures that made it far more difficult to exercise our hard-won voting rights. Since then, our struggles have reversed some of those measures, but many still stand and others continue to be introduced.

As usual, the fight for voting rights is inextricably tied to the long march of African-Americans and other people of color for all our civil rights. This was brought home to me this summer when I attended the 50th anniversary commemoration of Freedom Summer in Mississippi, when college students from the North joined hands with members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights activists in 1964 to register African-Americans to vote.

Freedom Summer saw the brutal murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in addition to four shootings, 52 serious beatings, 250 arrests and 13 Black churches burned to the ground. One year later, after other courageous actions by civil rights champions, Congress finally passed the Voting Rights Act.

Fifty years later, right-wing legislators continue to chip away at our voting rights where we live and work and in states where we have large numbers of retirees. That is the case in North Carolina, where our 1199 retirees are working to return Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan to Congress. The race is among the handful that will determine whether Republicans gain control of the Senate.

Hagan lobbied the U.S. Justice Department to overturn some of the worst voter suppression laws in the nation on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. She is opposed by Thom Tillis, the Republican North Carolian House speaker who oversaw the passage of the repressive bills.

While we work hard to prevent a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate, we understand that the fights in our statehouses are equally important. That is where the repressive laws originated, with the help of organizations like the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council.

That is why in Florida, 1199ers are organizing to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has supported “voter purges” as well as attacks on immigrant rights, the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion.

We can do our part in New York by voting for and supporting candidates who share our core values of economic and social justice, good jobs at a living wage and quality health care for all. Just as members of 1199SEIU in New York worked in the primaries to put our candidates over the top, we will be putting the full force of our union—representing 275,000 members in New York—into the effort to elect a strong Democratic majority to the state Senate.