Editor's note: Deirdre Roney (Harvard Law '87) began volunteering for Common Cause after the 2016 election. She lives in Los Angeles, CA, where she has enjoyed a 30-year career as an activist, philanthropist, writer, and artist.
Most Americans are familiar with the grainy images of our nation’s Civil Rights struggles: Rosa Parks, defiantly seated near the front of the bus; African-Americans sitting at lunch counters, linking arms, singing, and being blasted by fire hoses.
Behind it all was something more profound than a seat on a bus or at a restaurant counter. “We all understood that this was not about the right to eat sandwiches but about the right to vote. Everything we ultimately did was about the right to vote,” Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, has said.
Hispanics and Native Americans have also had their votes excluded and diluted since at least the 1960s. Beginning in 1965, the Voting Rights Act, specifically Section 5, was the main tool progressive government officials and activists used to protect and advance access to the voting booth. Chief Justice John Roberts and four of his colleagues on the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder, saying it was no longer necessary. Voter exclusion and suppression laws quickly arose after Roberts declared systemic prejudice a thing of the past.
Today, urbanites, the elderly, the impoverished, students, and people of color are targeted for voter exclusion. What do these groups have in common? They tend to vote Blue. What can we do to preserve the Constitutional mandate of one person one vote? We can learn from the proud history of African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics. They secured their voting rights in the second half of the 20th Century. Then, the federal government and federal courts were on the right side of history; albeit slowly and in fits and starts, they compelled states to comply with the Constitution.
Unfortunately, today, most in the majority party in Congress, the Executive Branch and the majority of the Supreme Court support state legislatures that target the rights of those who tend to vote Blue.
Daunting as that is, we are not in a uniquely difficult position. Since our nation’s inception, powerful men have sought to limit the vote to those most likely to support the status quo, because the status quo benefits these same powerful men. Their strategy has been twofold. First, restrict the vote to themselves and those whom they believe they can persuade or deceive into supporting them. Second, to withhold the vote from everyone else.
How is this accomplished? Voter manipulation and suppression are carefully hidden by code phrases and Orwellian terms (extreme vetting, Obamacare, family values, real Americans, law and order, states’ rights, justice is colorblind). False arguments are aggressively advanced in the media (massive voter fraud requires byzantine voter identification measures; early and accessible voting encourages illegal voting). The Supreme Court has helped these efforts by unleashing the overwhelming forces of dark money upon our elections and has upheld the right of the powerful to hide their identities and their goals through various corporate and/or tax-exempt disguises (See Citizens United v. FEC, McCutcheon v. FEC).
Defenders of the vote are not helpless. Historically, civil rights leaders organized diverse, peaceful protests marked by singing, marching, speechifying and civil disobedience. They strategically used the courts in jurisdictions where they believed they would receive a fair hearing. They pressured and cooperated with political leaders. They hosted fundraisers with respected public figures. They conducted and disseminated research documenting systematic voter exclusion, suppression, and dilution. Armies of volunteers registered voters, monitored polling places, and helped enforce voting laws. They worked with states that respected voter rights to create model systems that put repressive states to shame, pressuring them to change.
Today, activists continue to use these tools as well as the double-edged sword of social media technology. Additionally, we’ve learned from the LGBTQ movement about personalizing and emotionalizing the impacts of repression so those who seek to exclude Blue voters out of ignorance, fear and hate can begin to feel safe and connected to their fellow citizens.
Too many of those in power are carrying out sophisticated, well-funded efforts to significantly restrict Blue-leaning voters’ rights in ways that are damaging our nation. In 1901, African-American icon Booker T. Washington said that the “solution of the political end of our race problem will be… to change the law bearing upon the [voting] franchise to make the law apply with absolute honesty, and without opportunity for double dealing or evasion, to both races alike. Any other course… will be, like slavery, a sin that at some time we shall have to pay for.” Today, Blue is the new Black; the sooner we understand that the sooner we can successfully rise to protect the rights of all Americans to vote.
For more information on voter suppression, check out these books and websites:
“Give Us The Ballot,” by Ari Berman
“The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” by Greg Palast
“Ratf**ked,” by David Daley
“Up From Slavery,” by Booker T. Washington
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Voting and Elections