Voters want a fair, secure, responsive democracy — will Congress listen?
© Greg Nash

Every week the names change, but the stories stay the same. The president of the United States chooses a target—whether an individual or group—to make the subject of some hate-mongering throwaway line. It’s inevitably someone female, black or brown, or an immigrant who’s the butt of the joke.

Members of the president’s party go silent. Maybe because the news tells us he’s playing to his rabid base. All of us obsess over it on social media or with friends, at least until the next story comes along.

I’m a black woman and an immigrant from a place the president might call a sh*thole. As a lifelong advocate for our democracy, I have something to say to our elected leaders: these stories are dangerous distractions. The numbers don’t lie: people like me — unmarried women, black, brown and young people — are the real majority in this country. The stories you should be paying attention to are the ones we are telling and living every day.

The U.S. democracy is thriving, despite many of our congressional leaders. Last Fall, states like Michigan, Missouri, Maryland and Florida overwhelmingly passed packages of voting reforms that make voting secure and accessible; make districts fairer and less beholden to partisan interference; and curb the influence of wealthy special interests in our political process.

The question on your minds shouldn’t be whether we will turn out for the 2020 elections. It should be whether your attention is on the people or the presidential sideshow. Because we have to some things to say.

We Black, white and Brown people can work together to make change. Why can’t you?

The organization I lead, the Democracy Initiative, works with grassroots advocates in states across the U.S. to pass democracy reforms. I know firsthand that, contrary to what the news reports, groups who don’t always agree with each other can work together (like environmentalists, the Chamber of Commerce and labor) when their common goal is a fair, functioning political system. Our coalitions cross racial, cultural and class lines. And regardless of who was at the top of the ticket in 2018 state races, voter reforms won majorities from both sides of the aisle—proving that when democracy is on the ballot, it wins.

We want to trust and respect you. Why aren’t you listening to and respecting us?

Recent data from Pew Center for People and the Press show Americans on both sides of the aisle worry about the lack of confidence in our federal government—and nearly seven in ten want to see that trust restored. We’re worried about polarization and gridlock, but perhaps more importantly, we’re tired of having our views overlooked. Researchers from Georgetown and Yale Universities recently studied elected leaders’ knowledge of their constituent’s views and their willingness to use voters’ preferences in decision-making. Just one in ten decision-makers made an effort to learn their district’s policy preferences. Among those who did, “accuracy in understanding their specific constituents’ preferences was statistically indistinguishable from the accuracy of those legislators who hadn’t.” Consider that even after the most recent high-profile mass shootings, the Senate has not convened, and the president keeps escaping to the golf course. Perhaps, rather than pointing fingers at low-information or apathetic voters, we need to consider legislators’ lack of interest in or knowledge about us.

We want to exercise our right to vote and we want our votes to count. Why are you passing laws to stop us?

Despite an uptick in voter turnout in 2018, Americans face too many barriers to casting a ballot that counts in this country. From gerrymandering to purging voter rolls, it’s no accident whose voices get counted, and whose do not. Overwhelming evidence shows policies that require voter IDs and the limited ability to vote by mail disproportionately affect black and younger voters. So do similar voter suppression efforts such as limiting the number of polling places and the hours people can vote. With black, brown and poor people likelier to work jobs with inflexible hours and weekend work and less likely to own cars, laws requiring people to vote during “working hours” have clear consequences for who casts a ballot. People who don’t own their own homes or who move frequently—like low-income and younger voters—are likelier to be removed from voter rolls because of difficulty showing proof of residence with government IDs.

We all face the threat of foreign interference in our elections. Why aren’t you putting a stop to it?

If there was one consensus item to come out of the Mueller report, it’s that policymakers on both sides are worried about hostile foreign governments undermining our elections. But so far, we’ve seen little more than hand-wringing and empty promises out of Washington. A safe, secure and accountable democracy is not a partisan issue. We expect our elected leaders to do more and do better by us all.

We are tired of being ignored, silenced and pushed down by politicians who listen to everyone but the voice of the American people. Now that we are finally speaking up, is it too much to ask our elected officials to listen?

Wendy Fields is the Executive Director of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of 69 partner organizations from labor, civil rights, environmental, faith, women’s rights, democracy reform, and other sectors.