Voter suppression is as American as cherry pie.
The US is founded on war and conquest, land theft and forced removal, ethnic cleansing and genocide, kidnapping and a complex system of generational slavery based on African ancestry. Those are facts. None of the conquerors stopped and thought, Hmmmm…maybe Indigenous folks, or enslaved workers, or women should have a say in these matters. Ridiculous! It’s a settler-colonial system, and the founding documents are crystal clear: power will be exercised by and for the few.
And yet the struggle for the right to vote is steady and ongoing. And we should all be aligned with that effort because the right to vote is a fundamental principle worth fighting for—pause for a moment and note that people here and all over the world have fought and died for that right. Universal suffrage is a righteous goal.
Everyone who can vote should vote, and whether you can or cannot vote, you should stand on the side of universal suffrage.
But don’t be confused: for me, while the right to vote is a principle, the act of voting is a tactic, and ought to be embedded in a strategy.
That means coming to terms with the fact that you’re going to vote for a flawed, imperfect, infuriating, often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt candidate. But, hey, you’re not getting married (oh, and if you don’t know by now, even there, perfection is a fantasy) so vote.
You can recognize that issues of central importance—issues like war and peace, the unrestrained nature of finance capitalism, ending mass incarceration, or Medicare for All—are not on the ballot, and still vote. That’s because voting is neither the beginning nor the end of our political work, our participation and responsibility—we still have 364 days to organize and agitate, participate in direct actions, mobilize masses of poor and working people, and create a powerful fire from below in order to get things done. Get up, go out, vote, and then go back to work.
Fundamental change comes when we walk on two legs: one, building the Movement, and, two, engaging real politics. Locally this dialectic is easier to see, but it stands at every level. Without the Movement, nothing.
Individually refusing to vote, and assuming then that you’ve made a political point is a mistake, and a politically meaningless gesture. A non-vote does not register anywhere as a left protest. Movement-building is a collective project. So it would be substantially different if, for example, 20,000 people in Ohio said publicly that they would collectively boycott the election until Biden/Harris made a written commitment to concrete action toward a Green New Deal. One is a personal feeling, the other is a political strategy.
And while we need a Left Party (and, yes, serious efforts are underway in that direction), voting for quixotic campaigns led by folks who devalue Movement-building is a waste. I’m thinking of 2016, and staying with a couple of young socialists in Columbus, Ohio who insisted that Jill Stein was perfect, and that a vote for her would send a message and represent real resistance to the corporate Democrats, and…Ohio! And what was the message?
Progressives and radicals, most of whom have their eyes open to the desperate, terrifying consolidation of white supremacist forces led from the highest precincts in the land, as well as the steady lurching toward fascism that characterizes this political moment, are part of a broad strategy to build an irresistible social/political Movement that can successfully oppose war and empire, the system of white supremacy, and the power of corporate interests. We want to create a world that prioritizes human life and resists the inherent violence of capitalism, and we ought to think of ourselves now as part of a united front against fascism, casting votes against the Trump-Barr-Pompeo-Miller regime. And then, as always, returning to the work of resisting, rethinking, reimagining, and rebuilding—organizing.
Some History (if you’re tracking this stuff)
The Constitution did not establish voting rights, and the 3/5 Clause, the Electoral College, the Senate—all of this and more establishes minority rule by design. Our shambling, jerry-rigged, localized non-system of voting further invites voter suppression.
The 15th Amendment, completed in 1870, prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude (a good thing); the 17th Amendment, settled in 1913, establishes the direct election of United States senators by popular vote; the 19th Amendment of 1919 prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on sex (good!); the 24th Amendment (1964) prohibits revoking voting rights due to the non-payment of a poll tax or any other tax (also good). Each of these Amendments was hard fought, and none resulted in quick or full relief. The 15th Amendment, for example, was rendered toothless with the overthrow of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the treasonous South, resulting in a reign of terror and a lynching regime for the next century that effectively ended Black enfranchisement. It took the direct action of the Black Freedom Movement to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has been set back once again with the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder which struck down “federal preclearance,” the mechanism of assuring accessibility to the polls by federal inspection of any changes to voting laws or practices in places where Black people were historically prohibited from voting. Crippling voter ID plans were rushed into law by state legislatures across the South and elsewhere.
Indigenous people could not vote until the Indian Citizen Act of 1924, and there again, terror, deception, and threats of violence prevented the wide-spread exercise of the franchise.
The 3.2 million US citizens of Puerto Rico can’t vote in the US presidential elections, nor can the residents of the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, or the Northern Marianna Islands—all colonies, politely called US territories today.
The 700,000 citizens who live in Washington DC have no representation in Congress, although the 23rd Amendment (1961) did grant the District of Columbia electors in the Electoral College (that phony hold-over from the slave-ocracy) “in no event more than the least populous State.” Thanks, Boss.
So here we go again, voter suppression—the same old game the powerful have played forever—is embedded deep, deep in the American DNA, and it’s alive and rising up on steroids. The reactionaries are thrashing around searching for ways to maintain power despite overwhelming popular disapproval. Tactics morph and adapt, but restricting the vote is the through-line.
Here are a few of their many tactics, some transparent and obvious, some a bit more subtle, but each designed to keep the teeny tiny minority—the rich and the powerful, the 1%—on top of the rest of us economically, socially, politically:
~~Billions of dollars flowing into campaigns, the transparent corruption of democracy, and the perverse accounting and daily reports on which candidates raised how many millions. This and the screaming 24/7 commercial ads have the demonstrable impact of anesthetizing people and depressing the vote.
~~Reducing voting sites and restricting the days and times voting is permitted; no national holiday for Election Day.
~~An estimated 5.2 million Americans—one out of every 44 U.S. adults and one in 16 Black Americans of voting age—is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction.
~~In Florida close to 900,000 people who have completed their prison sentences remain unable to vote despite the passage of a referendum that restored their voting rights, because of a hastily passed law—later upheld by the US Supreme Court—requiring former felons to pay all outstanding court fees and fines in order to vote.
~~In three states—Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee—more than 8% of the adult population, or one of every 13 people, has had their right to vote taken away; in seven states—Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming—more than one in seven Black Americans is barred from the ballot box.
~~Texas governor Greg Abbot has declared that every county in the state will be limited to a single mail-in ballot drop-off location, meaning large urban counties like Houston’s Harris County, with a population of over 4 million, will have one drop-off location, just as a rural, sparsely populated county the size of Rhode Island will have one drop-off location.
~~California Republicans admitted in October that they had set up misleading ballot boxes around the state, encouraging people to put ballots in a phantom box.
On and on.