By now, we’re all aware of the spate of voter suppression sweeping the nation. The bad news is, with fourteen presidential primaries still on the horizon, we’ve unfortunately reached a point where we really have no reason to believe the suppression won’t continue. The good news is, we’re on it. It’s reaching the ears of our highest court (http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2016/04/30/3774235/the-supreme-court-just-offered-the-thinnest-ray-of-hope-to-victims-of-voter-suppression/). But this is no time to call it another win and retreat to our corners again.
New York–my state–is rarely on anyone’s radar. It’s not a “battle-ground state”, and is solidly “blue”. We don’t have to produce I.D., and are known for our efficiency (at least with this). Still, months leading up to the April 19th primary, signs of things rotten in the state were already fomenting. Once news of 126,000 voters purged from the voting rolls in Brooklyn broke, we knew we had joined Arizona and others in what is becoming a farce of epic proportions.
We shouldn’t be surprised, of course, what with all the warnings after the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Still, it stings. America prides itself on facilitating and overseeing elections in other countries, like Iraq in 2005; but here at home, the wheels of our representational democracy are spinning off. The question is, what can–and should–we ordinary citizens be doing before the car crashes?
Well, if there’s anything the rise of Bernie Sanders has taught us, it’s that we really do have the power to take on the establishment and enact real change. Remember about a year and a half ago, when Federal Communications Chair Tom Wheeler was toying with the notion of eliminating net neutrality? Millions of people rose up, signed petitions, called his office, emailed, voiced their concerns on social media. And he listened. This was a serious win for progressivism, and it demonstrated that there are still some people in government who care about listening to the people, doing the jobs for which they were elected or appointed. And that’s not all. Receptive to public pressure, President Obama walked back his support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Let’s not ignore the fact that many states are now raising their minimum wages, thanks in part to public outcry. And, of course, we can’t ignore the Supreme Court’s nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage. From these and other examples, it is evident people’s voices still matter, and in the United States our loudest collective voice should be our votes. Once that’s gone, what do we have left?
So what are common folk like us to do? Well, for starters, don’t accept it when you’re told you aren’t eligible to cast your ballot. If you’re duly registered and for some reason are told you’re not, DO NOT LEAVE THE POLLING PLACE. Call the “Election Protection” hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE. You can also visit the website at http://www.866ourvote.org/. You should do this for ANY irregularities you suspect, even if you’re allowed to vote. Then, unless whomever you talk to at Election Protection instructs otherwise, demand a provisional ballot.
But, suppose you vote without issue. That doesn’t mean the system is working flawlessly. There are still “open” primaries, “closed” primaries, and “semi-closed” primaries. This means, in some cases millions of people are disqualified from primary voting. Referring to New York again, since I was a Green Party member for several years, if I hoped to vote in the democratic primary, which I did, I had to re-register as a democrat SIX MONTHS before the primary. The card I received in the mail last fall reminding me of my polling place listed a “new” polling location which was different from the information I read when I checked my voter status online. The card also stated the primary was to be held in September, not April. If I weren’t so politically engaged or cared so much about the primary, like many, I probably wouldn’t have bothered voting. I’m sure many felt this way. Could this have been malicious voter disenfranchisement? I’m not sure. But based on evidence from other states, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. I do feel prohibiting millions from voting in closed primaries because they choose to not enroll in one of the two “big tent” parties, or any party at all, is a form of disenfranchisement, though, intentional or not. If we truly want more people voting (as the republican party has made it abundantly clear it does not), let’s finally open all our primaries. This requires that activism I previously spoke of. If you live in a “closed primary state”, contact your state’s secretary of state, your member of congress, senators, state legislators, and tell them it’s time to finally open the electoral process to all whenever there’s a vote, not just a general election.
Something else we can do, something Vermont has now passed along with three other states, is automatically register eligible voters at motor vehicle departments. In addition, support candidates who pledge to uphold and expand voters’ access to polls. Hillary Clinton supports automatic registration at age eighteen; Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill to make election day a national holiday. This transcends the presidential level, though, since so much policy happens at the local and state levels. Find out where your down-ticket candidates stand on voting rights, and hold them accountable so they know we’re paying attention. Ask them to support a constitutional amendment making voting a right for all Americans, something which, sadly, it is not, as the Supreme Court so coldly reminded us in 2000 after it handed the presidency to George W. Bush.
2016 has already been a year for the history books. Let’s not overlook this most fundamental (and troubled) privilege.