Near the end of his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama lambasted the countrywide attack on voting rights, and called for Americans to stand up and fight back.
He spoke of the need to make “voting easier, not harder,” and criticized “the influence of money in our politics” and the practice of redistricting “so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.”
He outlined his intention “to travel the country to push for reforms,” while adding that he “can’t do these things on my own.”
He invoked the concept of “a government of, by, and for the people” to ask Americans to act, saying that change “depend[s] on you,” and the future rests “on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen.”
He gave a rallying cry for Americans “to vote, to speak out, to stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.”
Unfortunately, Obama is completely right.
A war is being waged in this country on the foundation of democracy — and it is being won.
In 49 states, 395 new voting restrictions have been passed since 2011.
These new restrictions include minimizing early voting, ending same-day registration, enforcing stricter voter ID laws, disenfranchising people who have gone to prison, and shutting down voter registration drives.
In the 2012 presidential election, people had to wait as long as seven hours to cast their ballots, with Black, Brown, and Hispanic citizens waiting the longest. The voting rights of Native citizens are disproportionately restricted, as well, with little access to early voting and few polling places available nearby, necessitating hours-long car and plane trips.
A frightening 60 percent of eligible Americans voted for president in 2004, 2008, and 2012. That percentage is even less in state and local elections. In 2014, the country saw its worst midterm election voter turn-out in 72 years.
Compared to countries worldwide, the number of Americans participating in the election of their representatives is abysmal. Turkey, Australia, South Korea, Iceland, Israel, Greece, Austria, Mexico, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Portugal, Luxembourg, Estonia, Poland, Canada, and Slovenia all have higher voter turn-out rates than America.
Casting a ballot is what gives citizens power over their elected officials, the ability to impact their government and influence the structure that rules their lives.
Voting is the lifeblood of a thriving democracy.
As Obama said last week, the hope, the power of this country is in the “quiet, sturdy citizenship” of “the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count, because each of them, in different ways, know how much that precious right is worth.”
In the U.S., that right, and democracy with it, is being crushed.
Webb is a published writer on politics.