Here we sit. One month away from the moment where the American experiment continues, or whether we go down in a blaze of fascism led by a an orange toddler too stupid to take a pandemic seriously.
I know a lot of people out there – maybe yourself included – find this doomsday scenario farfetched. I am not alone, however. Our system is not just flawed at the moment; it’s almost irretrievably broken.
A democracy is literally the power of the people. WE decide. WE vote. WE elect. WE determine. WE direct. But it’s not that way anymore, is it? Nope, I hear you – we still have elections, you idiot. Of course we still have the power to elect. Stop with the doomsday stuff already, liberal.* Well, here’s the thing. In a true democracy, everyone with the right to vote should have the means and opportunity to vote. Otherwise, it’s not a democracy. And that’s not the case in America anymore.
Take, for example, this week’s action by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Like all states, Texas provides for absentee ballots. However, Abbot issued an order this week limiting the number of drop-off boxes for absentee ballots to one per county. That’s it. Now, let me explain why that’s a bad idea. There are 254 counties in Texas. The largest is Brewster County, which covers more than 500 square miles. (That’s three times the size of Delaware, BTW.) Although the county seat, Alpine, is the only true ‘city,’ the county is broken down into four major school districts and has three ‘census-designated areas’. In other words, it’s a large, extremely rural area where most people have to travel a long ways to buy groceries. Now. In this county alone, how is it possible to have ONE absentee ballot box? How far will people need to travel to drop it off? And – which is Abbott’s point in all this – will they? He’s hoping they won’t.
This is just the latest example of the erosion of voter rights that has been going on for some time – at least 30 years – and is only now manifesting itself. All erosions are unconstitutional. All of them violate the 14th and 15th Amendments, and usually the 19th Amendment, and all of them violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
No, voter suppression is not a new thing, you’re right. It’s been ongoing since just after the Civil War, when the white supremacist South couldn’t stand the idea of black men being equal to them, so the utilized every dirty trick in the book – and some they had to invent – to keep them from voting. Everything from literacy laws (‘read this paragraph of the Constitution to me, and you can vote’), to the infamous ‘grandfather clause’ (if your grandfather could vote in 1860, you could vote), to poll taxes, to out-and-out intimidation, usually by having Klan members in full bedsheets standing outside the voting booths on election day. Today, it’s a lot more subtle; they take pains to make it seem legal. Like Abbott’s declaration, or Florida’s new law stating that nonviolent ex-felons can’t vote unless all fines and fees are paid – thus disenfranchising over 1 million people, most of whom are people of color and/or of low economic status. Some will argue that this is fine. Others will argue that this is a violation of the Voting Rights Act – in essence, a poll tax. Either way, it’s preventing these people from voting. (Michael Bloomberg did raise funds – over $16 million – to pay fees for some of those disenfranchised voters, BTW.)
No. It’s clear the system is broken. And it’s clear that this is a long con – something that’s been in the works for decades, as Republicans slowly erode our rights away. In fact, I’d argue that we stand on the brink – if we’re not there already – of being neither a democracy nor a republic, but an oligarchy. Because partisan courts have turned a blind eye to their tricks, like gerrymandering (which is unconstitutional), or purposely kicking people of color off the voting rolls (Georgia), the people no longer have the power – which is the very meaning of democracy.
Can we get it back? Yes, but it will take some luck, belief, and a long-term, sustained effort – and, to quote Mad-Eye Moody, constant vigilance! We can’t for one second take the eye off the ball. And there are things we can do to mitigate circumstances so that we don’t end up back here again – or at least, so we don’t end up back here again soon – but it will take a real conversation about our democracy, our history, and our future. It will take a real commitment not to power or prestige, but to patriotism. It will take a commitment not to party or partisan politics, but to people. It will take a commitment to America itself.
We can save it. Our first step has to be to vote on November 3. Or to vote by mail. To request an absentee ballot. To VOTE, period. If you’re not yet registered to vote, go register! Every state has a different deadline to register, so check here – https://www.vote.org/voter-registration-deadlines/ – to find out your state’s deadline, or check out your state’s election office (usually part of the Secretary of State’s office).
Let me make a special plea to the 18-24 year olds out there – you will hear your elders, maybe even your parents, tell you you shouldn’t vote because you don’t know the candidates, don’t know how government works, don’t know the issues. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. You can become informed. Today, it’s easier than ever. You can make your voice heard. You can determine the kind of nation YOU want to live in. Here. Now. This is your moment. And you Millennials – those of you between 23 – 38? You outnumber the Baby Boomers now. Go register. Go vote. My students can’t wait to get to vote. They’re ready. We are still a democracy, damn it, and your vote does matter.
And if we win in a month, then we have a lot of work to do, a lot of changes to make, to ensure we are never standing here again, on the line between democracy and fascism.
* Also, there are a lot of countries, like China and Russia, which have elections, but those elections are meaningless because there’s only one party, and only one person to vote for. Elections in and of themselves don’t make a democracy; the right of voters to choose, to determine the path forward, is what makes a democracy.