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Democracy Fights Back

Republican attempts at voter suppression have inspired a movement to restore and expand access to the polls.

Joe Raedle/Getty

Florida Republicans recently adopted a poll tax to preserve a Jim Crow statute. That such a statement should be written to describe current events—not merely actions condemned to the dustbin of history—is harrowing but, sadly, far from surprising. The year is 2019, not 1950, but the fight over who can participate in our democracy is still our nation’s defining political struggle. And the Republican Party has solidified its role as democracy’s willing—and increasingly willful—executioner.

Over the past decade, the GOP has accelerated its attempts to rig election rules and ensure favorable outcomes. The party has adopted discriminatory voter suppression measures, attacked campaign finance regulations, gerrymandered districts, overturned ballot initiatives, and even waged power grabs after losing elections. It has also used the U.S. Senate to stymie reform and render the Federal Election Commission dysfunctional.

In just the past few months, Republicans have pushed even more boundaries. The Tennessee GOP made voter registration drives more difficult. Texas Republicans used federal money to conduct a sham investigation into voter fraud to lay the groundwork for voter purges. The Trump administration is trying to add a citizenship question to the census for the first time in American history, which, if it survives legal challenges, will drastically skew reapportionment, redistricting, and the allocation of federal funds. And, as noted above, the GOP in Florida gutted a historic effort to re-enfranchise over 1 million formerly incarcerated felons.

This last effort took place mere months after voters overwhelmingly passed the re-enfranchisement referendum. Now, those seeking to regain the right to vote must “pay all fines, fees, and restitution” associated with their sentences—a wildly difficult and discriminatory demand, given the state’s harsh and predatory use of fees.

But anti-democratic ideology and policy are hardly new. Exclusion played a central role from the founding of the republic to Jim Crow America. But this latest iteration, more visible in the past ten years, was consciously fostered through decades of intellectual and political labor, beginning in the early 1970s. Wealthy families joined major corporations to fund a largely invisible apparatus—one that has largely hijacked the Republican Party—to put into effect the laws that now plague our nation.

Make no mistake, both Democrats and Republicans have legacies stained with the manipulation of election rules. Yet the GOP has taken these efforts to new extremes, often mirroring an anti-system party more than that of a good-faith political participant.

The good news is that undermining democracy is not popular. In fact, outrage stemming from a lack of political representation is ubiquitous. As The Baffler editor Dave Denison wrote, “You could probably find more widespread belief in astrological portents than in the proposition that ‘here, the people rule.’” And this reality has spawned the growth of a resistance—not the anti-Trump #Resistance, but one far more significant: a Democracy Movement committed to realizing the (as yet unfulfilled) promise of an inclusive American democracy.

Florida’s vote to end the state’s harsh felon disenfranchisement statute was a crowning achievement of this Democracy Movement, no matter the GOP response. An astounding 64.5 percent—including a majority in almost every single Florida county—voted for the amendment. This means that many of those who supported far-right candidates Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis (now Florida’s U.S. Senator and governor, respectively) also voted for one of the largest expansions of the franchise since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is proof that the GOP grassroots are not in lock-step with their party elite’s anti-democratic bent.

And Florida is just the tip of the iceberg. Activists are winning pro-democracy battles across the country. Just on election night 2018, voters approved over 20 pro-democracy ballot initiatives. Now, 15 states and Washington, D.C. have automatic voter registration. Nineteen states and D.C. have same day registration. Fourteen states and D.C. will have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (with three more likely to join by the end of the year). Public financing of elections is spreading via municipalities. Five states last year attempted to limit gerrymandering (with varying degrees of success). And on a federal level, the House of representatives passed the For the People Act (H.R.1), an omnibus package that includes, among many other things, public financing of Congressional elections, nationwide automatic and same-day voter registration, and independent redistricting commissions.

In the face of anti-democracy push back, advocates are not giving up. In Florida, lawsuits will certainly be filed to challenge the poll tax. Moreover, a fund could be set up to pay the fines of those who cannot afford it. At minimum, democracy activists will register those who are still eligible under the new law. Significantly, since the ballot initiative changed the Florida constitution, overturning the poll tax only requires electing new politicians (albeit in gerrymandered districts).

Democracy advocates are also likely to continue their offensive via ballot initiatives across the country. In Massachusetts, for example, Voters Choice MA may put ranked-choice voting—a method that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference to ensure more democratic results—on the ballot in 2020. Activists hope a high turnout in a presidential election will be auspicious for these efforts.

Litigation has also proven surprisingly effective for reformers. Courts struck down Republican gerrymanders in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Florida counties were mandated to provide bilingual ballots, election assistance, and voting materials. And it was a lawsuit that exposed Texas’ sham voter fraud investigation.

Of course, in a federal judiciary increasingly stacked with rightwing, Federalist Society-approved justices, litigation will become more difficult. Efforts have already run up against an increasingly hostile Supreme Court, which has enabled the worst of the anti-democracy efforts through rulings in cases such as Citizens United and Shelby County. And just last week, the High Court halted court-ordered remedies in the Ohio and Michigan gerrymander cases.

Ultimately, if anti-democracy forces are to be pushed back, more state-by-state organizing is needed. Organizations such as March on Harrisburg, a Pennsylvania-based pro-democracy organization (full disclosure: I have served as an unpaid advisor for MoH), provide a good model for this type of work. It’s taken the group two years of organizing, lobbying, marching, and civil disobedience, but they have succeeded in elevating democracy reform to the top of the political agenda in the state capital.

National figures can use their platforms to assist these state-level efforts, too. New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen recently illustrated the potential of this strategy, demanding presidential candidates publicly endorse a state bill that would overturn a 2018 poll tax levied on students. Sixteen candidates did so, bringing significant media attention to the Granite State fight.

But there are limits to this state-based strategy. To tackle the worst anti-democracy laws—such as those in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Tennessee—federal policy is needed. This will require new, pro-democracy politicians in the Senate and in the White House. In this respect, 2020 will be a make-or-break election year.

This means more than just electing Democrats. Those running must commit to pushing election reform once in office. Fortunately activists are exerting pressure to make this happen in the 2020 presidential primary. Recently, a coalition of over 100 organizations sent a letter to every presidential candidate demanding prioritization of democracy reform in the primary campaign.

Presidential hopefuls clearly see the political winds shifting, and race to endorse the boldest democracy reforms. Bernie Sanders has advocated for a complete end to felon disenfranchisement. Kirstin Gillibrand released the most radical public financing program yet proposed, in which every American voter would receive $600 to donate to eligible candidates. And Elizabeth Warren sparked a national conversation by calling for the abolition of the Electoral College.

In these developments lies a critical lesson: No matter how much Republican elites try to roll America back to a pre-civil-rights era, a courageous democracy movement can counter them. Recent anti-democratic trends have only pushed the citizenry to work harder, and pushed our democracy to reach its potential. There is more success to come; there is increasing reason to feel hopeful.