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Why Bernie Sanders Needs to Talk About Voting Rights

As the first primary approaches, the Vermont senator has a chance to own an issue that is essential to his "revolution."

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

No debate can get to every topic that matters to every voter. But now that we have had five Democratic primary debates—which are now being held on weeknights, imagine that—it’s worth noting that we have yet to hear Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders seriously discuss two core liberal issues on the same stage. One involves access to abortions and other reproductive health care, which remain under threat by law and gun. The other? Access to the ballot box 

But, you may ask, don’t the candidates agree 100 percent on these issues? Pretty much, yes. Clinton and Sanders both want to protect abortion access and expand funding for Planned Parenthood; he recently seconded her call to repeal the draconian Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funding for abortion procedures with certain exceptions. As for voting rights, they concur that Congress should restore the crippled Voting Rights Act to full health. They both want a national standard for early voting and universal, automatic registration. Last August, during the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, discussing the issue was all the rage and both campaigns were vocal; the former secretary of state released a lengthy ad focusing on the legacy of activists who fought for those rights. Both Clinton and Sanders have platforms on their websites, and the differences between the two are minimal. So why debate them at all?

Not speaking the “a-word” too often is a Democratic tradition that needs to be broken. It cedes the public conversation about abortion and reproductive rights to conservatives and Republicans, who love to harp about “life” but never mention the terrorist attack at a Planned Parenthood clinic last November. (Clinton, to her credit, has mentioned the health care provider during the debates.) We can argue all we wish that America is moving left, but no one told the legions of patients living primarily in red states—especially those poorer women of color who are particularly disenfranchised—who are effectively barred from abortions by puritanical, often unconstitutional legislative measures. Given that the new Zika virus is forcing conversations about anti-abortion laws and disability rights both here and abroad, this was a prime opportunity to make attacks on reproductive rights even more prominent in the public consciousness. No such luck on that New Hampshire stage, at least.

The conversation about voting rights is no less dire. Hours before his network staged Thursday’s debate, MSNBC reporter Zachary Roth detailed how the new director of the Election Assistance Commission—the federal agency that helps states run their elections—just sided with three GOP-governed states that are trying to put up roadblocks to voter registration. Director Brian Newby’s sudden shift in EAC policy means that new instructions requiring proof of citizenship to vote will now be a part of the federal registration form in Kansas, Georgia, and Alabama. Roth called it “a sudden, unilateral surrender” by the EAC that could also have implications for Arizona voters, which also has a proof-of-citizenship law. 

Granted, none of those states are named “Iowa” or “New Hampshire,” which may be why it hasn’t yet come up on the campaign trail. And yes, both candidates have spoken to the issue in cable-news town hall settings and televised interviews as recently as the night before the debate, when Clinton responded to a question about “litmus tests” by mentioning the Supreme Court and her vote for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act during her time as a senator. Sanders, forceful on the topic during a November town hall, briefly mentioned at Thursday’s debate the Republican predilection to game the voting system in their favor.

But especially given his drastic polling deficit amongst voters of color, this is an issue that Sanders should be speaking about more often. For all the chest-puffing talk of “political revolution,” record donations, and youth turnout, Sanders hasn’t made voting rights a centerpiece of his push to change political culture. We’ve seen and heard, ad infinitum, his justifiable bluster about the criminality of Wall Street and about how the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for big money in politics. But you virtually never hear him talk about the influence of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC—which played a key role in drafting dozens of unnecessary voter-ID bills in 2011 and 2012.

As Sanders continues to rail against the powers that be and ask voters to anoint him as the avatar of political change, it is curious that he is not making a stronger effort to put his voting rights platform at the forefront of that “revolution.” Don’t the core Democratic constituencies targeted by voting laws have to get to the ballot box first if any of the stuff he’s promising can happen?

While Sanders and Clinton now see eye to eye on abortion and reproductive access, he has effectively ceded that issue to the Democratic frontrunner with his own sluggishness on the call for a Hyde repeal and her endorsements by Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. But just as Clinton has placed a heat lamp over the issue of environmental racism in this campaign by seizing the Flint water crisis issue (including a planned trip there on Sunday), Sanders can and should do the same for voting rights.

In September, Sanders joined NAACP Chairman Cornell Brooks and a crowd of marchers on the final leg of the group’s Selma-to-Washington, D.C., voting rights march.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Economic reforms and Wall Street prosecutions mean a great deal to black and Latino Americans, surely, especially to those who have been foreclosed upon or otherwise left behind in the Obama recovery. But Sanders has not shown yet a full grasp that there are issues involving racial and gender inequality that do not hew so closely to economics. Doing so would be a good first step for Sanders towards a more intersectional campaign. He needs to more effectively address issues that are particularly important to communities of color through their lens on American life, not his. 

Clinton skillfully poked at the Sanders campaign’s rather singular focus upon economics as a panacea, noting at the end of the debate that, “Yes, we have income inequality, we have other forms of inequality that we need to stand up against and absolutely diminish from our society.” Sanders should recognize that not so much as an insult but as a wake-up call. Mass incarceration and poverty both play into the voting rights issue in significant ways, and seizing voting rights as a campaign tentpole would help his appeal with marginalized communities. This should be one of the first things Sanders asks new surrogate Ben Jealous, the former NAACP chairman, to help him with. In addition to potentially attracting black voters, there could be value in this white man emphasizing to his largely white base of supporters, one which takes particular pride in their candidate’s past civil rights activism, that minority disenfranchisement is a priority. It would provide an opening to remind them and the American public at large that racism is inherently a white problem and that, ultimately, white people are responsible for ending it.

Sanders’s virtuous volume on the issue could even force the Republican candidates—most of whom have records of supporting voter suppression—to have to engage on the topic in the media, if not on the debate stage. Perhaps it could force action by the Obama administration or in a number of states where rights are threatened before a Sanders victory in November. If the “revolution” is this urgent, why wait?