Columns Intersectional Equity

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.

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.)

Columns Intersectional Equity

Week 28: The Filibuster

In the wake of the election, there has been intense debate around whether or not to do away with the filibuster in the Senate. The filibuster is when a minority (41%) of senators block the vote on legislation. In order for a bill to get passed, it needs to have a simple majority’s support (51% of Senate). However, this approval happens only if a bill gets a vote, which requires a supermajority (60% of senate) to happen. Essentially, a bill can have enough support to get passed, but not enough support for voting to happen in the first place. Many people argue that this is the reason for the Senate’s gridlock and inaction on so much legislation. Here is a brief video that explains how the filibuster works. 

The filibuster is a major obstacle to achieving Biden’s agenda, as the Democratically controlled senate has a majority only with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris. The level of partisanship in the Senate means that it is unlikely that significant legislation will receive the 60% support needed to get a vote, therefore blocking progress. The simplest way to get rid of the filibuster would be to directly amend the text of Senate Rule 22, which requires 60 votes to end debate. The problem with this solution is that a supermajority would have to agree to hold a vote on changing Rule 22, which, with our current Senate configuration, is extremely unlikely. 

There is a more complicated but likely scenario for eliminating the filibuster which has colloquially become known as the “nuclear option.” It would allow the senate to override Rule 22 by changing the way it is interpreted rather than the law itself. This change would only require a simple majority’s support and is therefore within the capabilities of the Senate. 

It was first used in 2013 by Democrats to dictate that only a simple majority was needed to confirm Obama’s judge nominees for the D.C. circuit court (watch Harry Reid call for the nuclear option). In 2014, Democrats were able to confirm 89 nominees (twice the annual average). However, in 2017, GOP Senators used the precedent set by Democrats to help get Trump’s supreme court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh (and later, Amy Coney Barrett), confirmed.

Getting rid of the filibuster would render the minority party practically powerless, discouraging bipartisan cooperation but also allowing more progress to be made. For these reasons, it is extremely controversial, with politicians radically switching their views with each power shift within the Senate. When Democrats were the minority, they nearly unanimously fought for the retention of the filibuster. Today, with the Democrats in slim control, the roles are reversed with conservatives fighting for the status quo. Implementing the nuclear option may be necessary right now if this administration wants to accomplish its goals, but at what cost for the future? 

Therefore, we must analyze whether we truly support getting rid of the filibuster because we believe the current ability of a minority to block progress is undemocratic, or if we only support the removal of the filibuster because it gives a certain party more power. If it is the latter, we must ask ourselves whether it is worth the future consequences should the Senate swing into another party’s control. While the filibuster has created a slow system in which progress is difficult, it also promotes a certain level of bipartisanship and cooperation that may be lost with its removal. 

There are positive and negative aspects to getting rid of the filibuster, and both action and inaction will have significant repercussions. However, with extreme partisanship polarizing our country, perhaps removing the filibuster is the only way to move forward in the short term, and we will, as a nation, need to address the larger ideological divide for a more productive and democratic future.