Make America Vote

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

Make America Vote
Art by WeArt on Getty Images

The voter turnout last Tuesday was historic – the highest in half a century, nearly half of the eligible electorate participated, an amazing number for a midterm.

The United States Election Project estimates turnout at 49.2 percent. How high would it have risen sans voter suppression – 55 percent, 60 percent?

Who might have won without the strangulation of some voters’ voices? Would Democrat Stacey Abrams have trounced Georgia Republican Brian Kemp, who acted both as candidate for governor and militant for suppression?

Like all disenfranchisers, Kemp did everything he could to choose his voters, making sure to disqualify electors likely to support his opponent’s effort to become the state’s first African American woman governor. That’s right. He targeted Black voters.

Kemp and his vote-stifling cohorts are upending the goal of a representative democracy. In a democratic republic, voters choose their representatives – not the other way around. Republicans are defiling America’s promise of self-governance by erecting obstacles to the ballot. To be great, America must clear the path to the polls, perhaps even mandating voting like Australia. There, turnout is more than 90 percent. 

The founding fathers created a country on the premise of self-governance, that each American was a citizen endowed with the right to self-determination. Those revolutionaries fought a war over their declaration that Americans were not subjects bound by whims of a monarch. Still, it took nearly another century and another war for Black Americans to gain freedom from enslavement. Even then, African American men only nominally gained the right to vote. And American women wouldn’t get the franchise for another half a century.

It’s a history sullied by a dominant group denying self-determination to minorities ­– African Americans, women, Asians, Native Americans. A person without the right to vote is subjugated to those who have it. Those who restrict the franchise reign over those to whom they’ve denied the right.

Before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, disenfranchisement was accomplished with poll taxes, voter registration tests imposed on Black citizens only, intimidation and violence. With those means outlawed, vote-silencers now use stealth measures.

Republican legislatures have, for example, required very stringent voter ID – the kinds of ID less likely to be held by African Americans and Hispanics, the elderly and the young – that is, citizens more likely to vote for Democrats. Texas, for example, allows a gun permit for voter ID, but not a student identification card.

In Georgia, Kemp, while running for governor, refused to relinquish his Secretary of State role as supervisor of elections. That enabled him to place a hold on 53,000 voter registrations under the spurious claim that the signatures on them did not exactly match, down to a dropped hyphen or middle initial, the names on other government documents. Not surprisingly, 70 percent of those 53,000 suspended registrations belonged to Black Georgians, citizens who seemed more likely to choose Kemp’s opponent.

In October, a federal judge ordered Georgia to alert these citizens before cancelling their registrations and to allow them access to vote with proper identification. But election monitors said poll officials improperly turned away hundreds of these Georgians.

In addition, voting rights groups said hundreds of voters complained that the state ignored their requests for absentee ballots – even multiple requests. Voting advocates said many of these reports came from communities of color.

The state also failed to replace 1,800 voting machines that were sequestered by a court case.  These machines served the state’s three largest and most heavily Democratic counties. Long lines at the polls resulted, discouraging voting there.

Brian Kemp contends he is the winner, that Georgia’s voters chose him. But the truth is: Brian Kemp chose his voters in Georgia. 

Some states – particularly those in the South – continue to erode voting rights. This includes Arkansas and North Carolina, which just approved ballot initiatives to require photo ID, a significant barrier to the polls for poor and old people who are less likely to have drivers’ licenses.

Still, some states removed barriers to exercising the franchise. That includes Florida where voters approved a ballot measure restoring voting rights to more than 1 million state residents with felony criminal records. In Maryland, Michigan and Nevada, voters approved ballot measures to expand access by allowing practices such as same-day and automatic registration.

In other places where Republicans attempted to suppress the vote, minorities knocked them on their heels. That happened in North Dakota, where Republicans tried to disenfranchise Native Americans by requiring voter identification with a specific street address. They did that knowing many of the state’s Native Americans living on tribal lands used P.O. boxes and lacked street addresses. The law took effect just weeks before the election.

The tribes fought back to protect Native American rights, however, quickly issuing new identification cards with street addresses. Jamie Azure, tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, told NPR that he believed the law intended to suppress his community’s vote had the opposite effect by uniting Native Americans against the injustice.

And, in fact, the Center for Public Integrity reported that Native American voter turnout was up sharply in North Dakota. One tribal region more than doubled the number of voters, compared to the previous midterm election year.

Apparently, in the case of some people, making voting difficult impels them to assert their rights.

Still, requiring voting is more effective. Even in a bad year, 91 percent of Australians go to the polls. Australia doesn’t suppress the vote. It demands the vote. In fact, Australians believe mandated suffrage moderates the country’s politics because it’s not just extreme partisans participating.

The penalty for an Australian failing to exercise the franchise is a fine. No one must actually choose candidates. They just have to deposit a ballot, even if it’s blank or has rude words scrawled across it.

Australia, however, makes voting easy, providing lots of well-staffed polling places and early voting options. It sends teams to collect ballots at prisons, hospitals and nursing homes.

Rather than on a workday, Australia conducts polling on a Saturday. And Australians make it a party, with community members hanging out afterward at stands selling cakes and grilled sausages, recently referred to as “democracy sausages,” to raise money for schools and charities.

America loves a party. Why not institute Saturday celebrations for mandated electors at American polling places? 

Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation and the President's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee 2.0. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.  He is a member of the executive committee for IndustriALL Global Labor federation and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger

Posted In: From the USW International President

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