Nov. 6 we will have an opportunity to voice our opinion about our nation’s direction. We dare not squander that opportunity; far too much is at stake.
At our nation’s helm is a wholly pro-corporate, misogynistic, bigoted demagogue. Both legislative arms are headed by the president’s pawns. The Senate has joined hands with #45 to move the nation’s courts to the right. And all three branches are working overtime to further shred our already fragile safety net.
Among the most pernicious practices of the current administration is its assault on the cornerstone of our democracy—the right to vote. Throughout our history, African-Americans have lost life and limb attempting to exercise this constitutional right.
A crucial chapter in this struggle was brilliantly dramatized in Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma,” which chronicled the struggles of civil rights champions, including white allies, who gave their lives to secure our right to the ballot. The culmination of that battle was the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act. President Lyndon Johnson called the signing of the VRA “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”
Despite repeated attempts to undermine and rollback these measures, the VRA ushered in an era of greatly increased African-American voter participation and a dramatic rise in Black and other people of color to elective office.
But democracy’s enemy landed a punishing blow to equality when the Supreme Court in 2013, in its landmark Shelby County v. Holder decision, ruled as unconstitutional the provisions of the VRA that required states with a history of voting violations to obtain preclearance from the federal government before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices.
Journalist Ari Berman’s prophetic 2015 work, “Give Us the Ballot,” warned that voting restrictions instituted in the wake of the Shelby County decision could very well have a profound and pernicious effect on the 2016 presidential election, which was the first in half a century that lacked the full protection of the VRA.
Unfortunately, Berman’s fears were realized. This year, Dr. Carol Anderson of Emory University detailed exactly how democracy was undermined in “One Person. No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.” In her meticulously documented study, Dr. Anderson traced our nation’s history of race-based voter suppression that continues to this day.
In the Jim Crow era, poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and sheer terror—including lynching —were employed to deny African-Americans the ballot. Today, that has been replaced by subtler and more sophisticated measures. These measures include passing onerous voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, closing polling sites, cutting back voting hours, outrageous gerrymandering and the continued disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated.
Anderson also discusses Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and quotes Dr. Rev. William Barber of North Carolina on how the interference exploited existing fissures. Barber said, “Voter suppression hacked our democracy long before any Russian meddled in America’s election.”
Anderson’s work, as was Berman’s, is not a cry of despair, but a call to battle, a plea to remember Selma. Our right to vote is a key component of a centuries-old struggle to ensure that our Constitution applies to every citizen, not just white male landowners. And, as we’ve noted often in this space, every advancement for African-Americans’ rights and equality is an advancement toward our goal of a more perfect union.
In cities and states where voter suppression is in high gear, progressives are fighting back to defeat undemocratic measures and dramatically increase voter turnout. In Alabama’s Black Belt last year, African-American women, in the face of intense voter suppression efforts, led a grassroots campaign to defeat arch-conservative Roy Moore and help elect Democrat Doug Jones to the Senate.
Supporters of Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor of Georgia are doing the same. As was the case in Alabama and other races this year, Democrats are attempting to beat back voter suppression efforts.
We are also encouraged by ballot measures in some seven states that would make it easier for all citizens to register and vote. Chief among them is Florida’s Amendment 4, which would restore the voting rights to 1.4 million disenfranchised felons.
Denying the vote to citizens who have completed their sentences is, like our undemocratic Electoral College, another relic of slavery. Overall 6.1 million of our citizens have lost their voting rights although they have paid their debts to society. A victory for this measure, which has gained broad-based support, would send a signal to the entire nation.
On Nov. 6, 1199ers in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, D.C. and Florida will be on the ground fighting for state and federal candidates whose values align with our own and for measures to help us take back our democracy, including our voting rights.
Guided by the spirit of our Selma pioneers, we should heed the words of former, President Barack Obama, “Let’s take off our slippers and put on our marching shoes.”
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest healthcare union in the nation.