Voter Suppression and the State of American Democracy

The clock is ticking. Many of us have already voted, many have yet to do so. We need to continue to organize to make certain that everyone is able to safely exercise their right to vote and that every ballot cast is counted.

Many who vote take for granted the right to do so, treating it as unimportant. I had no vote when in prison, nor for about four years after my release; its loss was part of a process of stripping me and all those who are kept under lock and key of liberty in every respect. We should never forget that those who strive with might and main to deny voting rights to some do so for a purpose: to suppress popular rights for all.

It is a connection we all ought to keep in mind when listening to the hatred coming out of the White House, of the fear being spread. Our need at the moment is to defeat Trump/Pence, our purpose is to do more than elect Biden/Harris. Below are some observations of what that means at present:

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In a state-wide referendum in Florida, a majority approved restoring voting rights to ex-felons. As a result, 1.4 million people whose rights had been denied could now vote. The Republican-led state government responded with a law requiring those newly re-enfranchised individuals to pay remaining court fees or fines before being allowed to vote. This kept many who lack financial resources disenfranchised. An estimated 5.1 million former prisoners across the county are still denied a vote.

Using a technicality, Republican officials in Iowa declared 100,000 ballots sent to voters invalid. The purpose is to force people to vote in person, despite fears of Covid-19. Elsewhere, Republicans have used various pretexts to invalidate registration forms, forcing voters to re-register or have their vote not counted when cast. Some ballots are challenged for frivolous reasons, while some voters are told they can be prosecuted for making a mistake.

Where early voting has begun, direct intimidation by the racist, paramilitary groups supporting Trump has begun as well. At a voting station in Virginia they encircled those waiting on line with motorcycles, chanting and jeering to create an atmosphere of fear. In California, Republican Party officials set up false drop boxes for mail-in ballots, one of numerous instances of reported deception.

In Texas, Ohio, Georgia, and other states, the number of voting stations has been reduced, as have the number of voting booths at each station. As a result, people have had to wait on line from three to 10 hours to cast a ballot. The long lines, the voter list removals, incidents of fraud, deception, and fear have targeted “unwanted” voters: middle-class and poor black neighborhoods, immigrant communities, Native American (Indian) reservations, liberal college towns.

Most egregious has been Trump’s direct interference with the U.S. Postal Service in an attempt to slow mail delivery (and thus receipt of mail-in ballots) and his false claims of voter fraud, which are meant to sow confusion and distrust. His refusal to say whether he will accept the result of any election he does not win serves the same purpose.

Although ruling circles have long tried to limit democratic rights, attacks on democracy have become more pronounced since 2000, when direct interference with vote counting in Florida resulted in George W. Bush being given the presidency. Many who were involved in that case of election theft are still at the center of Republican Party power and Trump’s inner circle. After popular mobilization made Obama’s election victory possible in 2008, Republican-controlled states responded by enacting laws making voting more difficult.

Then, in 2010, a Supreme Court decision equated money to free speech and so allowed candidates to spend unlimited cash when running for office. This was followed in 2013 by a decision to eliminate protections against voter suppression contained in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These both directly facilitated Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, even though – like Bush Jr. – he lost the popular vote. Next, in 2018, a court order prohibiting the Republican National Committee from misleading voters lapsed, opening the door to the fraudulent practices used by Trump supporters.

We can therefore see a long-term trend toward limiting democratic rights, making Trump’s authoritarianism all the more dangerous because there are powerful forces behind it. Racism, which has penetrated large sections of the working class and is also central to the thinking of many local wealthy elites as well as key sectors of corporate power, is partly the reason. Ever since the Black Freedom Movement in the 1960s won some success (such as the Voting Rights Act) ending structures of exclusion, those elites have incited already existing hatreds to stop and turn back even limited progress. Obama’s election as well as demographic changes that will likely make whites a minority within two generations have roused that hatred to a fever pitch.

Not incidentally, suppressing the Black vote means denying rights to those most determined to demand social responsibility over private profit. This is tied to tension between democracy as popular rule and liberty as freedom to exploit that has existed since the American Revolution. The rise of mass unionism during the 1930s gave meaning to the egalitarian potential of democratic rights; corporate power has since been trying to win back what was then conceded. With the global decline of U.S. power, key segments of capital have moved to “protect” corporate interests from public accountability more aggressively and is another reason for the weakening of democratic structures.

Opposed to this are sections of capital that accept the United States as a multiracial society, fear the impact of climate change, and see democratic rule as the best means to preserve their privileges and American power. More important, our multiracial working class in its majority is seeking to expand democratic rights in every arena of life and has spearheaded massive protests against Trump, against racism, and against social and economic injustice. Numerous organizations are mobilizing to resist voter suppression and to expand the vote.

The danger of authoritarian rule is real, thus the need for the broadest unity to ensure a massive defeat for Trump and Republican power in November. Such an outcome would strengthen the struggle to expand popular rights, to fight the corporate monster behind Trump’s megalomania.

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