It’s a fun time in national politics, as the big name Democrats line up to test the waters for president. The field is dynamic, diverse, and substantive; each entrant centers a unique set of issues, and both the nominee and the party platform will benefit from the robust but genial rivalries. Booker will lead with love, Warren will take financial institutions to task, Buttigieg will ably represent veterans, Gillibrand will center women’s and mothers’ issues... You get the idea. It will be a fun ride.
As with most fun things, the presidential horserace is the shiny thing, but not the important thing. Unless the Democratic party, progressive activists and third party groups combine forces to prevent voter suppression, the party's Presidential, Gubernatorial, Senate, and Congressional nominees will be mere participants in a game of political musical chairs, high profile personalities without key pieces of the infrastructure in place to actually compete to win.
In 2013, the Supreme Court took up Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder, and invalidated Section Five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section Five mandated that specific states with a history of pernicious suppression would have to have any changes to their voting procedures pre-cleared with the Department of Justice before they could take effect. When preclearance went away, states hastened to pass voter ID laws where they were not already, purge voter rolls, close polling places and license offices, shorten polling hours, and institute other measures determined to restrict voting access for specific populations. Invalidating Section Five allowed voter suppression to run rampant with only the federal courts as a check on the back end, a check which often engages after substantial and irreversible damage has already been done.
In 2018, some colleagues and I founded the National Voter Protection Action Fund to resource organizations on the ground in key states doing anti-suppression work. We made an impact, partnering with the New Georgia Project, ACLU of Georgia, ACLU of Wisconsin, Miami Urban Voter Project, and St. Mark's Church of Little Rock to get dollars to anti-suppression work in areas who fielded diverse candidates against the backdrop of active suppression threats. Hundreds of Americans responded to our call to give just $5, using the hashtag #igot5onvoterprotection. A few weeks in we realized a stark reality: to fight suppression efforts just months or weeks before an election is a losing battle; the anti-vote groups are already too far ahead because votes are suppressed by deterrence long before election day.
The true battlefield is in the state and municipal policy arena during non-election years, where legislative action can be used to thwart suppression efforts and expand ballot box access.
Let's assume that the next Presidential and Congressional elections happened next month, and all the energy of the 2018 blue wave remained. Let's assume that Democrats have an exciting presidential nominee who unites the party base. Let's assume that Stacy Abrams and Jamie Harrison are the party standard bearers for Senate in Georgia and South Carolina, and Dems have fielded dynamic candidates all over the country for Congress and Governorships. What will stop Georgia from purging rolls again in the same way Brian Kemp did to ascend to the Governor's mansion? What will stop Dodge City, Kansas, from closing all of the polling places inside its city limits, or majority black Halifax, N.C. from closing two of its three early voting locations, like both places did in November? What will stop Florida from closing out races before every ballot is counted?
Nothing. Per the current state of affairs, every one of the intentional voter suppression techniques that preemptively or at point of sale quash votes that are likely to go to Democrats remains in place. As a result, every rally, financial contribution, or canvassing effort to benefit a Dem campaign in many states goes to support a candidate who is fundamentally hamstrung to begin with.
Fortunately, most states have two legislative sessions to take actions which would help end suppression and expand ballot box access before the next major national election. That's why this year the NVPAF is working with bipartisan legislators in several states to introduce our inaugural legislative package, which includes automatic voter registration, same day registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and an election officer conflicts rule, which bans a sitting election supervising officer from presiding over an election in which she or he is a contestant.
Our advocacy is by no means limited to conservative states, a recognition that votes are suppressed when voting access is not actively expanded.
Filing bills is nice, but the state and local legislative process moves when citizens demand it. Everyday citizens have to team with national and local organizations to get the word out about voter expansion agendas and organize around passing real proposals into law. Visit www.nvpactionfund.org, www.fairfightaction.com, or www.letamericavote.org find out more about what you can do in your state to protect and expand democratic access, and how you can get involved.
The personalities of the day won't matter if the means of ending voter suppression and expanding ballot box access are not secured by November 3, 2020. Regardless of who is nominated to our highest offices, the real work starts now.
Don Calloway is CEO of Pine Street Strategies, a Washington, D.C. public affairs firm, and founder of the National Voter Protection Action Fund. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org