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Our country’s oldest and longest struggle has been to enlarge democracy by making it possible for more and more people to be treated equally at the polls. The right to participate in choosing our representatives – to vote — is the very right that inflamed the American colonies and marched us toward revolution and independence.
So it’s unbelievable and frankly outrageous that in the last four years, close to half the states in this country have passed laws to make it harder for people to vote. But it’s true.
As this country began, only white men of property could vote, but over time and with agitation and conflict, the franchise spread regardless of income, color or gender. In the seventies, we managed to lower the voting age to 18. Yet a new nationwide effort to suppress the vote, nurtured by fear and fierce resistance to inevitable demographic change, has hammered the United States.
And this must be said, because it’s true: While it once was Democrats who used the poll tax, literacy tests and outright intimidation to keep Black people from voting, today, in state after state, it is the Republican Party working the levers of suppression. It’s as if their DNA demands it. Here’s what Paul Weyrich, one of the founding fathers of the conservative movement, said back in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
So the right has become relentless, trying every trick to keep certain people from voting. And conservative control of the Supreme Court gives them a leg up. Last year’s decision – Shelby County v. Holder – revoked an essential provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and that has only upped the ante, encouraging many Republican state legislators to impose restrictive voter ID laws, as well as work further to gerrymander Congressional districts and limit voting hours and registration. In the past few weeks, the Supreme Court has dealt with voting rights cases in Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Ohio and upheld suppression in three of them, denying the vote to hundreds of thousands of Americans. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in opposition, “The greatest threat to public confidence… is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminating law.”
The right’s rationale is that people — those people — are manipulating the system to cheat and throw elections. But rarely – meaning almost never — can they offer any proof of anyone, anywhere, showing up at the polling place and trying illegally to cast a ballot. Their argument was knocked further on its head just recently when one of the most respected conservative judges on the bench, Richard Posner of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, wrote a blistering dissent on the legality of a Wisconsin voter ID law. “As there is no evidence that voter-impersonation fraud is a problem,” Posner declared, “how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials?”
The real reason for the laws is to lower turnout, to hold onto power by keeping those who in opposition from exercising their solemn right — to make it hard for minorities, poor folks, and students, among others, to participate in democracy’s most cherished act.
And you wonder why so many feel disconnected and disaffected? Forces in this country don’t want people to vote at the precise moment when turnout already is at a low, when what we really should be doing is making certain that young people are handed their voter registration card the moment they get a driver’s license, graduate from high school, arrive at college or register at Selective Service.
In a conversation for this week’s edition of Moyers & Company, The Nation magazine’s Ari Berman put it this way: “This is an example of trying to give the most powerful people in the country, the wealthiest, the most connected people, more power. Because the more people that vote, the less power the special interests have. If you can restrict the number of people who participate, it’s a lot easier to rig the political system.” And Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, noted, “For people who don’t have the power to engage in terms of money in the political process, the way we all become equal on Election Day is that we cast that ballot… [So] it’s not just about corporate interests. It is about power. And it is about trying to suppress the voice of those who are the most marginalized.”
So vote, dammit. It is, as President Lyndon Johnson said when he signed the Voting Rights Act, “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.” But don’t stop there. Engage, and start the conversation of democracy where you live — in your apartment complex, on your block, in your neighborhood. There is always at least one kindred spirit within reach to launch the conversation. Build on it. Like the founders, launch a Committee of Correspondence and keep it active. Show up when your elected officials hold town meetings. Make a noise and don’t stop howling. Robert LaFollette said democracy is a life, and involves constant struggle. So be it.
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Journalist Bill Moyers is the host of the new show Moyers & Company, a weekly series of smart talk and new ideas aimed at helping viewers make sense of our tumultuous times through the insight of America’s strongest thinkers.. His previous shows on PBS included NOW with Bill Moyers and Bill Moyers Journal. Over the past three decades he has become an icon of American journalism and is the author of many books, including Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, Moyers on Democracy, and Bill Moyers: On Faith & Reason. He was one of the organizers of the Peace Corps, a special assistant for Lyndon B. Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He is the winner of more than 30 Emmys, nine Peabodys, three George Polk awards and is the author of three best-selling books.
Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America-East, is senior writer for Bill Moyers’ new weekend show Moyers & Company.