Voting rights form the basis for a functioning democracy, and they are under attack in this country. This is the first in a monthly series called Do Something, where we take practical action to help.
Jump to the Do Something about Voting Rights actions.
Introducing Do Something
I don’t know about you, but I when I think about the state of the world these days, I feel like that Dutch kid, only instead of one crack in the dyke, there are a thousand, and more appear all the time. It’s overwhelming. My feeling of powerlessness makes me shut down.
I can’t fix the world. Neither, I’m guessing, can you. I do, however, have power to do something, especially if I focus my attention. There are organizations I support monthly that address issues I care about, but I can do more.
So here’s what I’m going to do: Each month, I’m going to focus on an issue that’s important to me, and I’m going to do something to help. I’m inviting you to join me. Some of these issues will be US focused (frankly, we need it), but we’ll also be looking globally.
Our first issue: Voting Rights
Democracy is supposed to be a fair competition of ideas. Candidates put forth policy platforms, and, we, the people, vote for the candidate whose positions most closely mirror our own. If our candidate loses, it hurts. We have to look at our ideas, possibly refine them, or do a better job of persuading people that our idea is a better one. As citizens, we have an equal voice. May the best idea win.
Voting is absolutely fundamental to a functioning democracy. If we can’t vote, then we no longer have a democracy. And, I hate to say it, friends, but we have a problem when it comes to voting rights.
We have to do something.
A troubled history and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
If you’ve ever taken a US history class, then you know that access to the ballot box has been an ongoing source of struggle in this country. We’ve held the principle that all men are created equal, emphasis on the men in the beginning, and then only certain men, specifically white men with property. Disenfranchised groups have fought for our entire history for access to the ballot box, and that fight has been met with violence and intimidation. White women only secured the vote in the early twentieth century, and, despite attempts to ensure that Black citizens could vote, racist Jim Crow laws ruled in the South.
A major step in securing voting rights for Black voters came with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act codified how the fifteenth amendment, which stated that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
This was a landmark piece of legislation, and, while far from perfect in its execution, massively increased access to the ballot for Black citizens. It remains among the most successful acts ever enacted by Congress.
Voting Rights Act gutted in Supreme Court Case
In 2013, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder decision by declaring Section 5 of the act unconstitutional. Claiming that the South had changed and no longer required monitoring to ensure that they were providing equal access to voting for People of Color. Under Section 5, certain states, counties, and townships with a history of discrimination were required to obtain what was known as “preclearance” before enacting changes to their voting procedures. This was what gave the VRA teeth and prevented harm.
Aftermath of Shelby v. Holder
Gutting the VRA opened the floodgates to all manner of restrictions to the ballot box.
Voter ID laws restrict voting rights
With the decision, states formerly governed by Section 5 moved swiftly to restrict ballot access, with Texas leading the charge with a stricter voter ID law that allowed citizens to use their NRA ID card, but not their student ID to vote. Many states have followed suit since then, many of them targeting poor and minority voters. It’s important to remember that IDs cost money in this country, as does the required documentation to obtain them.
These strict voter ID laws purport to counter voter fraud, something that study after study, including one started by Donald Trump (who famously claimed that New Hampshire’s 2016 election was fraudulent, because “thousands” of people were bussed in from Massachusetts) , has proven is not an issue in this country.
The specter of “voter fraud” has provided cover for disenfranchising millions of voters, especially the poor and BIPOC.
Other laws targeting voting rights
Other states have gone after early voting, which helps to ensure that everyone can vote (Tuesdays being a day when most people are working), narrowing the timeframe when people can register to vote, and targeting registration drives. In the wake of the pandemic, many states are passing laws to restrict absentee voting (using “vote by mail” as the boogeyman instead of a widespread practice, used especially by our nation’s seniors and people with disabilities. The very Red state of Utah has voted by mail exclusively for years, with no issues of voter fraud).
States have also closed polling places, leading to challenges in getting to the polls, as well as causing unreasonable wait times to vote, especially in areas with concentrations of BIPOC voters. Georgia has infamously long lines in nonwhite areas, but they are not alone.
These laws aim to make it harder for people to exercise their right to vote, and they target certain groups of voters, especially BIPOC and the poor, unfairly. If you’re white and/or live in a reasonably affluent area or a state where these laws have not been enacted, it’s easy to miss the chilling impact this has on exercising the right to vote.
I voted yesterday in a preliminary election, and, while my polling place was consolidated, and I had to walk further than I’d anticipated to get to it, I had no trouble voting. The longest I’ve ever waited in Somerville to vote was fifteen minutes, and we have decent turnout. Yesterday there was no wait at all. All I needed to do was give my address and confirm my name.
It should be that easy for citizens everywhere to exercise their right to vote. To help make that happen, we are going to Do Something.
Do Something about Voting Rights
Voting rights is a huge issue, one that we have struggled with for as long as we have existed as the United States. The challenges I outlined above only scratch the surface of the problem (I didn’t, for example, discuss sweeping purges of voter rolls that are commonplace and catch legitimate voters in their net).
We’re not going to solve voting rights today. Instead, these are actions that we can take to help. They involve educating ourselves; ensuring that if we can vote, we do so in every election; making phone calls; and donating if we can to organizations leading the fight to ensure that all citizens can exercise their right to vote.
Register and vote
- If you’re eligible, make sure that you are registered (find out how here) and vote. In every election, on every issue. Local elections are important. Democracy depends on participation. If you’re having trouble registering, reach out to one of the organizations listed below.
- Encourage your friends and family to do the same.
- Make sure that those who represent you hear from you, especially on voting rights.
- Your Senators: (202) 224-3121
- Support: John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, passed by the House in August.
- Support: For the People Act of 2021. This is a key piece of legislation.
- Note that as of this writing, the Senate has proposed a voting rights bill of its own. While not as sweeping as the bills passed by the House, it has promise.
- In order to pass any legislation to protect voting rights, the filibuster will need to be abolished. Tell your Senator that you support abolishing the filibuster, especially for voting rights.
- Your state representation if you live in one of the states that has or is planning to restrict voting rights, and tell them you oppose such action.
- Your state representation if you live in one of the states that has or is planning to expand voting rights, and tell them that you support such action.
- Your Senators: (202) 224-3121
Learn and Donate
- Stacy Abrams’s Fair Fight, which works to make voting free and fair. This is a great resource for advocacy and education, including helping to get voters registered and countering racist laws to restrict voting. Consider a donation if you can.
- The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU is on the front lines of a host of issues, including voting rights. Donate if you can.
If we Do Something, it can make a difference
We’re not helpless in the face of huge problems. We can take action and Do Something to help.
Will you Do Something about voting rights? Do you have another suggestion for how to help? I’m all ears. Please let me know in the comments.