By Josh Leach on September 3, 2020
The foundations of our democratic process have seldom felt so shaky. The sitting U.S. president is casting doubt on the validity of the upcoming election, calling for a delay in the vote and strategizing to suppress the delivery of mail-in ballots. Earlier this year, President Trump warned that certain “levels of voting” might damage his reelection prospects, suggesting this made them illegitimate. These remarks were followed more recently by comments indicating Trump planned to post armed agents at federal election sites.
Moreover, November’s election is proceeding without critical safeguards in place that helped protect voting rights in prior decades. Due to a controversial 2013 Supreme Court decision stripping key provisions from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, U.S. states can impose new restrictions on voting without having to clear these changes ahead of time with federal authorities. Since then, numerous states have closed down polling sites and enacted new voter I.D. laws designed to suppress the votes of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.
U.S. citizens and residents are not powerless in the face of these incursions against the fundamental rights of our democracy. By taking action on UUSC’s key human rights priorities, we can help prevent the disenfranchisement of communities and expand the ability of all members of society to participate in the government decisions that affect them. Below are five ways UUSC members can take action now to defend the right to vote.
1. Stop Criminalizing Protests
According to the ACLU, nine U.S. states permanently restrict the ability to vote of some or all people with felony convictions. When coupled with state laws that unfairly criminalize nonviolent protest activity—such as “critical infrastructure” bills recently passed in many states that target peaceful resistance to pipelines and other fossil fuel equipment—these rules amount to a two-pronged strategy to disenfranchise people who speak out against injustice.
Under a law recently adopted in Tennessee, for example, just camping out peacefully on state property (as many people did during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests) would be enough to result in a felony conviction and up to six years in prison. As a result, protesters would also lose their right to vote under the state’s felony disenfranchisement law.
Unfortunately, similar laws are being introduced around the country. The good news is that advocates, including UUSC’s team, have been following these changes for a long time and are organizing to push back. UUSC supporters can take action to track and overturn these anti-protest bills in their own states by downloading our Right to Resist toolkit and finding other resources on our Right to Resist campaign page.
2. End Racist Policing
State disenfranchisement laws not only target protesters, however; they also harm Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities who have been treated unfairly by the criminal justice system for decades. When some groups of people are disproportionately policed and sentenced in states that also strip the right to vote from people with serious convictions, the result is that communities are lopsidedly disenfranchised. This long-standing racist tactic for limiting the electoral rights of Black people dates all the way back to the segregationist South.
Dismantling unjust policing and incarceration systems is therefore also key to defending our democracy and upholding the right to vote. The nationwide uprisings this summer to defend Black lives are part and parcel of the struggle to protect our elections. UUSC members can take action in solidarity with these goals by using our toolkit to support the BREATHE Act. This visionary legislation would transfer resources away from harmful federal policing and incarceration programs and toward the systems we truly need to keep our communities safe.
3. Defend Birthright Citizenship
Since coming into office, Trump administration officials have repeatedly cast doubt on the right of U.S. citizenship at birth. Most recently, President Trump gave credence in an interview to a false conspiracy theory that Kamala Harris is somehow ineligible to run for the office of Vice President, simply because she is the daughter of immigrants. Despite these insinuations, the U.S. Constitution is clear: everyone born in the United States is a citizen of this country, regardless of the immigration status of their parents.
Discrediting the citizenship of some Americans because of immigrant ancestry is a racist ploy designed to limit the democratic participation of non-white members of our society. In order to defend the right to vote, as well as all the other rights given by the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution, we must be ready to speak out against false claims calling birthright citizenship into question.
4. Expand the Electorate
Roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants are residing in the United States—in some cases for decades. Despite living under a government whose decisions affect their lives every day—often in ways that are terrorizing and unjust—they still have no prospect of being able to influence the decisions of that government by becoming U.S. citizens and gaining the right to participate in the electoral process.
Hundreds of thousands of DACA and TPS recipients are in the same boat, despite commitments from leadership of both major parties to work toward a path to permanent status. Meanwhile, policy changes that make it harder and more expensive to become a naturalized citizen are boxing even more immigrants out of one day achieving the right to vote.
Migrant justice is therefore also a matter of electoral justice. People who have to live with the consequences of an election in this country deserve a voice in that election. Congress must grant a path to citizenship to DACA and TPS holders now, and ultimately to all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
5. Vote, Vote, Vote!
The most important way that we can protect our democratic institutions is to make full use of them ourselves. Only by electing officials who reflect our values and putting pressure on current members in office can we achieve human rights and systemic change in this country and globally. Regardless of which party you support or which candidate you favor, all U.S. citizens can and should make their voice heard in the electoral process.
You can support efforts to get out the vote and defend voting rights by signing up with UU the Vote, a project of the Unitarian Universalist Association supported by UUSC through our joint Love Resists campaign.
With so much at stake, now is not the time for complacency or indifference to the fundamental institutions of our democracy. As civil rights leader and member of Congress John Lewis reminded us in a message he arranged to be delivered posthumously:
“The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed.”
About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!
Photo Credit: iStock – TheaDesign