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Week 32: Voting Rights in the Wake of the 2020 Election

The issue of voting rights was easily one of the most important and publicized aspects of the 2020 election, with politicians arguing ardently in support of or against provisions expanding mail-in voting and laws that add additional barriers (voter ID laws, signature check, etc).

There were stories of success, such as that of Stacey Abrams, whose work expanding voter access and engaging communities in Georgia was instrumental in the state’s shift to blue.

Across the country, however, cries of voter fraud and calls for election integrity provided a basis for a systemic push to deny the right to vote. One study found only 27% of Republicans believe the election was legitimate despite an overwhelming lack of evidence both from governmental and independent research agencies. 

Under the guise of addressing electoral fraud, Republicans have focused their efforts on pushing back mail-in voting (which was overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats).

Many republican officials have perpetuated messaging about the insecurity of mail-in ballots, but South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham gets to the heart of the sentiment in a conversation with Fox News: “If we don’t do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country.”

This is problematic to the nature of our democracy as a whole. When politicians are working to restrict voting access in order to get elected and stifling the voices of their constituents, it opens the door for further corruption and degradation of our representative system.  

Within Pennsylvania, conservatives in the legislature waged legal battles up to election day to preserve restrictive laws and work against vote-by-mail expansions.

As of February, 43 states “have introduced, prefiled, or carried” over 253 bills restricting voting access (Brennan Center for Justice). These bills aim to tighten restrictions on mail in ballots, implement stricter Voter I.D./signature check policies, make it more difficult to register to vote, and make it easier to purge voter rolls.

In total, there are 8 current bills with restrictive provisions making their way through the Pennsylvania state house, most of which center on mail-in voting (3 attempt to do away with “no-excuse” absentee ballots entirely).

On a national level, the Supreme Court heard arguments last week on the constitutionality of two Arizona laws, one which made it harder for Navajo Nation voters and another which required absentee ballots to be collected only by the voter’s relative or caregiver.

Given the court’s 6-3 conservative majority, it is very possible that the court will rule these laws as constitutional.

While there is a push for more restrictive voting laws in many statehouses, there is also a fight for expansion in others, with a different set of 43 states proposing or implementing 704 bills that will act to expand voting access.

In Pennsylvania, there are 9 bills that act to make voting more accessible by expanding early voting times and locations, allowing election day registration, and automatic voter registration.

On a national level, President Biden has taken action by signing an executive order this past Sunday which directs federal agencies to work on policies that “promote voter registration and participation.” This comes as the House passes H.R. 1 (For the People Act), a bill that builds on the protections of the Voting Rights Act and the work of John Lewis in his proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Among other things, the bill would allow for same-day registration and nationwide expansion of early voting (allows lower-income workers with generally less flexible schedules to vote) and push back against aggressive voter roll purging and gerrymandering (especially in communities of color).

The act would also include provisions to regulate campaign finance by creating “a small donor system of public financing for congressional and presidential elections,” making space for candidates to better represent the views of their constituents rather than their financers (Brennan Center for Justice). 

However, the For the People Act still needs to pass in the Senate, which is unlikely with the filibuster still in place. This bill has mounted increasing pressure on Democrats within the Senate to consider the merits of doing away with the filibuster, and it is possible that it will be abolished in order to pass H.R. 1. 

Regardless, voting rights are still a battleground issue, and it is vital that we continue to stay engaged. Whether through pushing for less restrictive laws, ensuring fair maps, or working outside the governmental confines to empower and educate voters, the work done now is critical to guaranteeing access to the ballot box, regardless of assumed political affiliation.

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Columns Intersectional Equity

Week 29: Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams has been at the forefront of public attention and praise for her work during the 2020 campaign to combat voter suppression, and many argue that her grassroots organizing in Georgia secured Biden’s presidency and the Democratic control of the Senate. However, Abrams’ work extends far beyond this election; she is also a small business owner, celebrated author (even writing romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery), and fighter of voter suppression and systemic inequality in Georgia for decades. 

Abrams was raised in a home centered on public service; her parents brought her along to volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. At 17, she was promoted from a congressional campaign typist to a speech writer and graduated as valedictorian of her high school. Then, in college, she organized voting registration drives and protests. She was also an outspoken critic of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson (the first black man to lead a major Southern city), explaining that despite his trailblazing victory, he was not doing enough for the city. Mounting pressure led Maynard to create an Office of Youth Services, in which Abrams served as a research assistant and was the only undergrad hired. 

In 2006, Abrams was elected to the state legislature and became the first Black woman Democratic Party leader in 2011. In her time as a state legislator, she worked across party lines to preserve reproductive rights, improve transportation, reform criminal justice, and protect medicaid and education from recession era budget cuts. She notably partnered with Republican Governor Deal to protect Georgia’s HOPE college scholarship from being cut.

In addition to her roles as a government official, Abrams has achieved major success through her numerous non-profit organizations, with her work resulting in approximately 800,000 voter registrations. In 2014 she founded the New Georgia Project, which works to help register the growing population of POC in Georgia; as of 2019 they had registered nearly half a million voters.

In 2018, she ran for governor against Secretary of State Brian Kemp as the first Black woman ever to represent a major party in a gubernatorial race. Kemp’s position as Georgia Secretary of State (which he refused to step down from, as is the norm) gave him the power to purge almost 700,000 voters and close 200 polling places in predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods. 

After her loss by under 2%, Abrams vowed to continue the work she promised to undertake as governor, whether in office or out. Abrams founded Fair Fight Action, an organization which works to combat voter suppression and promote candidates that support voting rights. It has led a lawsuit that resulted in the reinstatement of 22,000 Georgian voters last year, by challenging exact signature match laws and the purging of voter rolls and by advocating for statewide consistency in counting and processing. Abrams also founded Fair Count in 2019, an organization which worked in Georgia to ensure fair representation on the 2020 census. Additionally, Abrams established the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP), which works within a network of organizations to foster economic growth and power in marginalized Southern communities.

In addition to the concrete effect it had on the lives of Georgians, Abrams’ work helped draw national attention to the state’s shifting demographics. Abrams’ efforts to turn out Black voters (which overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates) highlighted Georgia’s growing importance as a swing state, allowing major candidates like President Biden to campaign and win in a state that has not elected a Democratic president in three decades. The network of grassroots organizations Abrams founded and grew within Georgia were vital in campaigning, educating, and registering voters for both the Senate and Presidential elections.

In a state that has had a strong history of racist voter disenfranchisement, the work Abrams has done is remarkable. Not only did she play a huge role in this last election, but over the past twenty years she has helped secure the rights of countless Georgians. Her approach includes not only politics, but also non-profits and economic programs which are helping to build a more equitable foundation for our country. 

For more on Abrams’ work and the history of voting rights, watch her documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy on Amazon Prime (or stream from one of the non-official sources on Youtube – we won’t judge.)

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Week 20: Campaign Financing/Advertising

With the 2020 election wrapping up, we thought it would be important to talk about campaign financing, what it is, who it affects, and why we need to change the system. 

Here is a great introductory video in which congresswoman Cortez explains the dangers of dark money.

How does money get spent during campaigns?

Money is spent in two general avenues: publicity and overhead expenses. Politics is a popularity contest — so advertising such as lawn signs, billboards, leaflets, direct mailings, and social media and tv ads are all very important to get a candidate’s image and message out to the public. Money is also spent on operations such as plane tickets, hotel rooms, staff, event catering, and other campaign trail expenses. 

What effect does money have on campaigns?

The amount of money a candidate raises is directly proportional to their chance of winning. For example, in the 2018 general elections, 89% of candidates elected to the House spent more money on their campaigns than their opponents (83% in Senate). For that reason, it is very important for candidates to raise money, so large corporate and individual donors can influence policy by ensuring that the candidates they support financially implement their visions if elected. 

How do candidates get money?

Candidates and political organizations can get donations from individuals, private groups, or the government. There is a complex web of regulations that vary depending on who is giving money, how much they are donating, and to whom they are donating it (candidate or party). These regulations include donation limits, spending caps, and requirements for candidates to release certain information (such as donor names, amounts, and spending). This being said, most regulations have legal loopholes and insufficient enforcement.

Citizens United (2010), Super PACS, and Dark Money 

In the 2010 SCOTUS case Citizens United V. Federal Elections Committee, the court ruled that restricting corporate funding on election activities was a violation of the first amendment.

This decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of “soft money” on election funding so long as they are not directly coordinating with the candidate. This allowed for the creation of a ‘Super PAC,’ a sub-group of political action committees that can raise and donate unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals. 

From 2010 to 2018, Super PACs have spent more than 2.9 billion dollars on federal elections, advertising, and other materials that directly support or attack candidates. Where traditional political action committees are only able to contribute $5,000 to each candidate per year and election, the lack of limitation on super PACs allow corporations and individuals to influence elections without bounds. Although they must disclose their donors, Super PACs still allow for over a billion dollars without traceable sources (dark money) to enter the election cycles through shell corporations or other anonymous donor groups. This is particularly relevant in this election cycle, as “more than $116 million in political spending and 2020 contributions can be traced back to ‘dark money’ groups aligned with Democratic or Republican party leadership.”

Some problems with our current system:

Candidates’ chances of winning are largely reliant on their campaign spending, which makes it much more difficult for grassroots candidates (people that don’t take corporate or pac money) to succeed. This means that without change, the wealthy well connected members of society will continue to hold office, denying low-income communities true representation within our government and perpetuating a system that won’t prioritize their needs. This is closely tied to the second issue, which is that politicians can be controlled or at least highly influenced by corporations and individuals behind the scenes, meaning that the decisions being made about our laws, rights, and day to day lives are not being made by those we elect to office, rather the people who have enough money to be heard. Although there is a committee which is supposed to regulate campaign financing, it has been inefficient due to a lack of bi-partisan cooperation, allowing dark money spending to proliferate. 

What can we do about it?

While there is a desire to increase regulations and enact reform, a catch-22 exists where those elected to office can’t push for that reform because it would go against the interests of their sponsors. That being said, there is hope through organizations such as Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats that are working to help large numbers of candidates get elected who pledge to not take any PAC money or corporate sponsorship. Through organizations like these candidates such as the women who make up “The Squad” can be elected to government positions in order to truly represent and fight for their communities. 

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Can’t Vote? Phone Bank!

Photo Credit: Shawn Harquail

Theoretically, phone banking seems simple and straightforward: you call up prospective voters, tell them how important it is to vote, and convince them that they should cast their ballot for a particular candidate. How hard could it be? 

I had this exact thought process when my parents suggested I help out at a phone bank. Little did I know, there’s so much more to it.

There is a sense of satisfaction in knowing that you helped at least a few people come out to vote. In a world where we as teenagers often feel helpless, particularly in politics, phone banking is an amazing way to make a difference. 

At times, I have found phone banking to be pretty ego damaging. Many people simply do not want to talk to you and hang up on you quickly, some do not agree with you, and a couple are openly rude, but the few that respond well make it worthwhile. 

The position of teenagers in politics is unique; we are old enough to have developed opinions of our own, yet people rarely listen to us. Phone banking may not be the most radical or exciting way to make your voice heard, but it does create an impact. 

My dad took me phone banking for the first time before the presidential election in 2016. I distinctly remember dialing number after number and talking to these strangers, trying to make sure each of them was registered to vote. I quickly became discouraged and tired of being hung up on, but then I talked to one woman who didn’t know where her polling place was, and I was able to provide her with a website. This may seem like a small victory, but the feeling of accomplishment after I had helped this one person vote was incredible. 

I think that our generation is going to (and already is) making huge changes in this world, and this is just another way we can all contribute in a small way to better help our city, our country, and our world. 

So if you are a teenager who can’t vote yet, but is interested in politics and wants to make a difference in the crazy world we live in, volunteer at a phone bank! 

Right now, the phone banks are all virtual and they happen very frequently. It is very easy to participate — you can sign up through the PA Democratic Party or Back to Blue

I couldn’t find any Republican phone banks, but here’s a link to volunteer for the Philadelphia Republican party. 

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Why They Didn’t Walk

The clock strikes ten. At the front of the room Biology teacher Gen Nelson is answering a question from the thermochemistry review packet. Behind her, students exchange furtive glances, waiting for someone to stand up, to leave class. Someone stands up and is quickly followed by a shuffling stream of students.

It’s March 14, and students across America are walking out of class to protest gun violence. For seventeen minutes students stand outside in silence to commemorate the seventeen lives lost in the Parkland shooting. The only break in the silence is a reading of the names of the Parkland victims..

The GFS walkout mirrored any other American high school in that some students (though at GFS it was many) walked out and some didn’t.

For some students walking out was a spur of the moment decision, but for others it was months in the planning. Junior Ivy Hunnicut, who walked out, says she “disagrees with how our government is dealing with school shootings,” and adds that “they’re not really changing anything, it’s just shooting after shooting.” Sophomore Jack Miller went into the day with a “fluid mindset,”  and eventually decided to walk out.

Students who walked out describe the moments before 10:00 as awkward, but the walkout itself as powerful. Students left their classes in silence to stand together in front of The Main Building. They describe the atmosphere as similar to a worship sharing, in a more positive sense Hunnicut described the experience as similar to a Meeting for Worship, since it was “a guided time to think about one thing that means a lot to people.”

The majority of students who walked ascribe their decision to the prevalence of gun violence, but the same cohesion of purpose does not exist among those who chose not to walkout. Some didn’t walk out because the seventeen minutes provided an opportunity to complete homework. One junior chose not to walk out because they felt “it was going to be a protest and that’s not my style, not my personality.”

Sophomore Elijah Lachman didn’t walk out because “kids these don’t understand the whole idea of the Constitution and gun rights,” he says, “just because a few kids want make bad decisions and shoot up schools [that doesn’t mean] they should change the rules.”

Students who did not walk out describe the atmosphere leading up to the protest as “weirdly tense” and “awkward.” The walkout was the main topic of conversation, with teachers making a point of connecting it to classroom discussion, and asking which students would be protesting.

The same  junior was in Biology when students, after motion to each other, walked out. He stayed behind on the pretense of asking his teacher a question. Afterward she led him to the Hargroves Center, where he sat with three other students: two freshmen and one junior. He made small talk with the other junior, surprised by the scarcity of students. He thought there would be at least ten students who would not walk out and says “I was protesting more than I wanted to… I wanted to stay neutral, but it made me feel like I was protesting the protest.”

Some of the students who didn’t walk out seem to believe that some of the students who walked out only did so due to student pressure. The same junior who didn’t walk out says he thinks some of his friends walked out because “knew everyone else was going to walk out.”

Sophomore Ana Branas agrees. “We go to a very liberal school and I think it would have been odd to stay behind because so many people were leaving. It would say something strong about your political beliefs.”

Student opinion is split on whether walkouts are an effective form of protest.

“I don’t think Congress even glances at these walkout. It’s like any other protest… it makes no impact,” says Lachman.

Branas disagrees. “[The walkouts] have the potential to change things. Even if it’s not going to immediately change the law, it’s bringing people together and bringing attention to [gun violence.]”

Miller says the problem doesn’t lie in the limitations of protest itself, but rather, the limitations of the March 14th protest. He says, “Only having 17 minutes [to walk out] felt like less of disruption than a programmed event.”