At Gettysburg, when the nation was at war and faced the greatest threat to its existence, Abraham Lincoln called on us to honor those who had died in that great civil war so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
If we are truly a government of the people, and every citizen’s participation is considered equally important, then every citizen should have equal access to the ballot, every vote should be counted, and certification of the results should be without partisan influence.
And yet, a coordinated effort in states across the country is working to undermine that very principle. And the most aggressive changes to voting rights are occurring in Republican-controlled states that saw Democratic wins in the 2020 election. The new laws in Georgia, for example, allow massive purges of voter registrations, make it much more difficult to cast a ballot, and shift power away from local election officials to allow the state legislature to make decisions on election results. Instead of making it easier to vote, these new laws are designed to suppress the votes of those most likely to vote against Republicans before, during, and after an election.
This strategy is not new. After the Civil War, the Constitution was amended to abolish slavery (13thAmendment), guarantee citizenship and equal protection under the law (14thAmendment), and prohibit discrimination in voting rights based on “race, color, or previous conditions of servitude” (15th Amendment). This was the period of Reconstruction. By the mid-1870s, thousands of Black Americans had been elected to local, state, and federal office. The nation had its first Black senators and congress members. But following the disputed 1876 presidential election, the Compromise of 1877 allowed Southern states to enact Jim Crow laws to severely limit the ability of Black Americans to vote until the Voting Rights Act was passed almost 100 years later.
Today, voting rights are again under attack. In 2013, the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act, eliminating the preclearance requirement and making it easier for states to change voting laws that have a disparate impact on voters. Texas and North Carolina immediately passed restrictive voting laws. In the federal court ruling that overturned a portion of the North Carolina law, the judge said it had been designed to suppress the African American vote “with almost surgical precision.” This year, the Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee decision makes it even more difficult to challenge voter suppression laws. The courts have been making it easier to disenfranchise voters.
To justify voter suppression laws, Republicans claim they are necessary to ensure voter integrity. They cite unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, even though investigation after investigation has failed to turn up any credible evidence of election fraud. The Associated Press reported on July 17 that Arizona election officials have identified fewer than 200 cases of potential fraud out of more than three million ballots cast, only four of which have led to charges. In other words, the claims of widespread fraud in Arizona are completely without merit. The same is true everywhere fraud has been alleged.
And yet The Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election continues to be used as a basis to restrict voting rights.
Some argue that the federal government shouldn’t interfere in how states run their elections. That was the basis for the Shelby County v. Holder decision. But Jim Crow showed us that state’s rights must be balanced with individual rights as citizens of the United States. And when any state infringes on our individual rights, the federal government must step in to protect those rights.
The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act together would limit the power of the states to suppress the right to vote. But unless the Senate filibuster rule is altered, there is little chance either will pass. And Democratic Senators Manchin and Sinema have both said they have no intent to vote to change the filibuster.
So if Congress isn’t going to save us, what can we do to protect the right to vote?
In Washington State, our election system process is fair, secure, and easily accessible. If you are a Washington voter, make sure our system is protected and maintained.
If you are a voter in one of the dozens of states that are making it more difficult to vote, support efforts to organize and get out the vote. Elect representatives who will protect our democracy. The Texas Democratic legislators who left the state rather than allow voter suppression laws to pass showed how it makes a difference who we elect.
Voter turnout is typically low in non-presidential election years, and even lower for local elections. Each of us has the ability to influence others to vote. A majority of voters want to protect the right to vote, but they have to exercise that right in order to preserve it. If our votes weren’t important, there wouldn’t be such a concerted effort suppress them.
It took almost 100 years to overturn Jim Crow and restore the rights guaranteed by the 14th amendment. It has taken opponents of those rights decades to undermine the protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And it may take years to restore equal voting rights to all citizens regardless of their race, color, or party affiliation.
I believe in democracy. I believe our country is worth fighting for. I believe that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people is worth saving. A government of all the people — not just those who look and vote like me. And I will do what I can to ensure this nation does not perish from the earth.
Ted Miller grew up around the world but now lives in Richland with his wife. He’s a runner, actor, singer, nuclear engineer, and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Ted believes that if more people worked toward love and understanding instead of giving in to fear and divisiveness, the world would be a better place.
Main image: African American demonstrators outside the White House, with signs “We demand the right to vote, everywhere” and signs protesting police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama] / WKL. Original black and white negative by Warren K. Leffler. Taken March 12th, 1965, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Photo courtesy of Unseen Histories on Unsplash.