The Case for Courage

Fight for voting rights, not just for yourself but for your neighbor, too.

July 24, 2017

The catastrophic first months of the Trump administration have caused countless Americans to ponder, aloud or to themselves, what they can do to save the nation from the looming grip of authoritarian rule, what they can do to save democracy itself from the clutches of a venal White House and a supine Congress. Millions have taken to the streets in protest. Others have decided to run for federal office themselves. Some have filed lawsuits to challenge some of the more dubious actions of the Trump team. Others have become symbols of resistance simply by being fired.

But the simplest and most direct way to effect change, to restore respect for the rule of law and for legal and political norms, is to vote and to fight back forcefully against the administration’s cadre of vote suppressors so that other citizens can vote as well. That this requires some degree of personal courage again 52 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act says a lot about how powerful and well-placed are the men and women who want to make it harder for certain Americans to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.

You don’t need me to add my voice to the chorus of those who have pointed out that the administration’s “Election Integrity” commission is a sham. Chair Kris Kobach and partisan functionaries Hans von Spakovsky and Ken Blackwell are on the panel to stoke fears of voter fraud so they then can gin up dubious policies designed to make it harder for citizens of color, and citizens without means, and students, and the elderly, to vote. Think of the commission as an extension of a Republican policy choice over the past decade or so; if we cannot compete for votes with our policies we’ll simply make it harder (or impossible) for likely Democratic voters to vote.

One way to respond to this anti-democratic strategy is to do precisely what scores of state officials, both Republicans and Democrats, have done over the past few weeks. No fewer than 44 secretaries of state have told federal vote suppressors to buzz off when Kobach and company asked for data from local voting rolls. I cannot remember that last time 44 states of this not-so-perfect union agreed on anything so controversial. The skepticism displayed by these local officials, the distrust of the commission’s motives, the reflex to respect privacy rights and true election integrity—is encouraging. But it is not enough.

It is not enough for citizens to express anger at the effort by Trump’s vote suppressors to obtain information on voters. And it certainly is not enough for people to withdraw from the voter rolls either in protest or in fear of the White House’s planned purge of the voting rolls. The big news these past 10 days or so comes from Colorado, where approximately 4,000 registered voters have evidently withdrawn from the rolls in that purple state. We do not know, we will never know, how many of these people would vote Republican and how many would vote Democrat in 2018 but that’s not the point. The point is that America needs more citizens voting, not fewer citizens voting.

Voter self-suppression is not an act of patriotism. It is not an honorable act of civil disobedience. It is a not a smart tactical move to preserve privacy (there are countless other ways in with government and corporations already trade in your private, confidential information). It is, instead, an unintentional act of partisanship. It helps the people who are trying to disenfranchise Americans and it hurts the people who are fighting for the rights of those Americans to continue to be able to cast a ballot. It allows Trump and Kobach to continue to pretend that the kind of voter fraud they say they fear is real; it enables them to point to those citizens who are de-registering now and say to the world: They must have been fraudulent voters! It’s a lie. But it’s also a soundbyte.

This generation’s fight for voting rights is no less vital than was the fight our parents and grandparents fought over voting rights 50 years ago; the stakes are no less high. GOP voter suppression tactics, enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2008 ruling in Crawford v. Marion County and its 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, are the most serious threats to representative democracy we have faced since the end of the Second World War. They represent significant pillars of the “Second Redemption” in which we find ourselves; torn between returning to or rejecting forever a past rooted in poll taxes and overt racism.

Now is not the time to de-register to vote. Now is not the time to make it harder for your fellow Americans to vote. Now is not the time to hide in fear because a bully shouts “fraud” and demands private information. Now is not the time to condemn citizens without driver’s licenses to some form of second-class citizenship. Now is not the time to force elderly people who have voted for decades without incident to take extraordinary measures to cast a ballot. Now is not the time to make it impossible for military veterans to vote.  

Now is the time to vote. Now is the time to stand up and be counted even if you do not trust the federal officials who want to count you. Now is the time to ensure that you are properly registered and to make sure that your friends and neighbors, too, are properly registered. Now is the time to call your local and federal lawmaker and press for broader voting rights. If there can be a “Second Redemption” there surely can be a “Second Reconstruction” and it seems to me the road toward that day passes through the voting booth, no matter which candidate you choose.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.