The Right to an Equal Vote
To guarantee that the American people can demand and achieve justice.
I put the Right to an Equal Vote first among the 5 Rights because it is the gateway to all our rights; the starting place for a fair democracy. With this right guaranteed, the American people can demand and achieve justice. Without it, American democracy does not truly exist.
A constitutional right to an equal vote for each citizen is the foundation of a positive vision for our country in the 21st century — a vision of America as a place where every voice is heard, everyone’s humanity is recognized and every vote is freely cast and properly counted.
The American people do not have equal votes today and, as a result, Americans are still struggling for inclusion and for true justice and equality.
It’s clear to me that if any citizen’s right to an equal vote can be taken away, all our rights are in danger. That’s why we can’t tolerate Republican voter suppression laws or partisan gerrymandering by any political party. That’s why we have to protect the people’s voices from being shouted down by the power of big money. These tactics are attacks on our democracy. We can’t let them be “politics-as-usual” or “both sides do it.” They have no place in a free country.
I began our 5 Rights tour with a conversation on the Right to an Equal Vote at a community meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. We started there because it is a place very familiar with conflict over human rights and with positive change. The state has much to teach us about the long battles Americans have fought over voting rights — over who is and isn’t entitled to a voice in this country.
South Carolina, like many states, was a place where the right to vote was severely restricted from colonial times right up to the mid-1960s. Progress toward an equal vote has been largely a result of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. But since it’s a law, not a right, the Supreme Court was able to gut it in 2013 by a bare 5-to-4 vote along straight partisan lines. Five years later, the new Democratic majority in the House is moving to fix the act to satisfy the Supreme Court’s objections. But what chance do you think that bill has to be passed by a Republican Senate or signed by a Republican president?
Meanwhile, as we heard in Charleston, black citizens of the state continue to see their voting rights under attack and many South Carolinians fear what their Republican state legislature will do to restrict the vote further in the 2020 election.
The Republican Party does not believe every citizen should be able to vote.
Voter suppression and the fear of it aren’t confined to South Carolina. After the Supreme Court struck down critical parts of the Voting Rights Act, nine states went on a voter purge bonanza, removing millions of people from their rolls. This year, New Hampshire passed a law instituting a modern poll tax on student voters because they turned out for Democrats in 2016. I’m very familiar with that act of voter suppression. NextGen, which I founded, worked hard to increase youth voter turnout in New Hampshire during the last presidential election. And NextGen ran the largest youth turnout drive in history in 2018.
It’s now been documented during the 2018 midterm elections that suppression deprived people of their vote in many states, including Georgia, Texas, Florida and North Dakota.
This is so wrong. We must not allow any American to live in fear of having their voice and their vote arbitrarily taken away.
Many Americans are surprised to learn there is no right to vote in the Constitution. The Constitution was written implying the right to vote—but it does not create any such right, and, for sure, it doesn’t guarantee the franchise to everyone. The fact is, we started at a deeply imperfect place, where only white male property owners had a say. Working-class white men, women, African-Americans and many non-Christians were denied the vote along with many other basic rights. We have inched closer to true equality over the centuries — but only because Americans have organized and protested to demand the ballot.
It’s been well over a century since the women’s suffrage movement launched in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. It’s been more than five decades since the now-famous march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for black Alabamians. Still, our voting rights today are far from secure.
The modern battle for an equal vote focuses on two big problems: deliberate voter suppression along racial and partisan lines, and the corporate money flooding our politics and drowning out the people’s voices.
Let’s start with voter suppression, and let’s be straightforward: The Republican Party does not believe everyone should be able to vote. They do not want everyone to vote. And they are willing to sacrifice our democracy to keep people from voting. They literally will never win again if everyone votes.
Today’s Republican Party knows its agenda is deeply unpopular with most Americans. The more people that vote, the more likely Republicans are to lose. So, they create ways to cheat and keep people from the polls.
Consider what’s happened in South Carolina over the last decade. Just under half the state’s population identifies as Republican, but the GOP controls five of the state’s seven Congressional seats. That’s gerrymandering — drawing congressional maps to favor one party, which often involves drawing those maps along racial lines.
Since 2010, South Carolina has had one of the worst gerrymanders in the country. Most of the state’s black voters are clustered in a single district. They account for a third of the state’s total population and they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Historically, they get just one Congressional seat. It’s only because of the big blue wave in 2018 that Democrats flipped another House seat — the first time that’s happened in South Carolina since 1986.
As if that weren’t enough to guarantee Republicans control over South Carolina, they passed a voter ID law in 2011 that disproportionately affects those same black voters. In Wisconsin, a similar voter-ID law lowered turnout in 2016 by 200,000 votes. Donald Trump went on to win the state by only 22,748 votes. If we had the Right to an Equal Vote, he would have lost that state.
There’s no denying a direct link between Jim Crow and these voter suppression efforts. And these are far from the only barriers to voting. Around the country, Americans have to wait for hours in lines at the polls; drive for miles because polling places are intentionally put in inconvenient locations; cast votes on antiquated machines that often malfunction, don’t always offer paper trails and can’t be audited; see their names purged from voting rolls because they missed a single election; suffer challenges at the polls because a clerk misspelled a single letter in their name.
Many folks don’t even get time off in their workday to go vote. And we have a president who engages in voter intimidation himself. He specifically asked for police officers to be present at the polls to scare people.
We have to change all this. Registration should be automatic. Voting should be easy and accessible. Because democracy depends on the broadest possible participation.
Corporations have set the rules—for themselves, shifting America away from serving the common good.
Democracy also depends on not letting big corporate contributions and lobbying override the will of the people. Otherwise, we are governed by a democracy of dollars, not voters.
Polls have shown that as many as 8 in 10 Americans—Democrats, Republicans and Independents—believe our democracy has been purchased by corporations and the rich. They’re right. I agree. I’ve seen this firsthand.
Many of you may know I was a professional investor for 35 years. Over that time, I got to know a lot of high-ranking corporate executives. Back in 2007, I had an argument with a very senior executive for one of the country’s biggest banks. I was letting him have it over the lengths his bank went to avoid paying taxes here in the United States. His defense: “We’re not an American company. We’re an international company. We make over half our money outside the United States”
But a year later, when the financial crisis hit, he and his bank didn’t call Beijing or Moscow. They didn’t call Tokyo or London. They called Washington, begging for a bailout. Guess what? They got it — $10 billion of American taxpayer money.
Then they outsourced thousands of jobs to Asia and South Asia, and fought relentlessly against new U.S. regulations written to stop Wall Street from burning down the economy again. They argued that Wall Street should just police itself. And a lot of those demands were met, too.
How could our government defend and bail out this company, and then reward their total lack of responsibility and patriotism? It has a lot to do with the $3.4 million they spent lobbying Congress that year; the $6.6 million they donated to politicians in the 2008 election; and the tens of millions more they’ve dumped on lobbyists and campaign contributions every year before and since.
The truth is, it’s become easy for corporations to set the rules—for themselves. Not supporting civil society. Shifting America away from serving the common good to serving corporate profits. Because if a representative bucks donor interests, that donor’s money is probably going to back a challenger.
Big corporate donations and lobbying are the only explanation for why the Republicans passed their unpopular tax cut in 2018 that sent most benefits — billions and billions — to corporate profits and rich people, leaving average Americans to deal with huge deficits and growing government debt that now threaten our whole economy.
Look at most challenges holding Americans back; there’s usually someone profiting off the problem.
But there’s an even bigger point to be made and it isn’t just Republicans who are involved. Money has corrupted our entire system and both major parties. There are deep-pocketed people on both sides of the aisle, and corporate money flows to power, no matter if it’s red or blue.
In 2017, my organization, NextGen America, pushed for a drug pricing transparency bill in California. It required drug companies to inform one of their biggest customers — the state of California — of any big price hike a month beforehand, so the state could consider alternatives. We weren’t even able to directly challenge the drug price increases themselves. We were just trying to offer simple information to the state so it could substitute cheaper drugs where possible and effective..
In a democracy where everyone’s voice is heard, this would be a no-brainer.
But even in a Democratic state, with a Democratic governor and a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, we had to fight tooth and nail for it. It took two years. They hired 45 lobbying firms just to try and kill this simple drug pricing information bill. When a real drug-pricing reform proposition reached the California ballot, the industry amassed a warchest of $126 million to confuse voters and defeat it.
Politicians may feel they need that kind of money on their side to compete. But all this money is holding us back from getting big things done for the public good. Because solving people’s problems will almost always threaten profits. When you look at most of the challenges holding Americans back, there’s usually someone profiting off the problem.
It’s easy to see who benefits from sky-high drug prices and it’s sure not the people. The school-to-prison pipeline benefits private prisons and the bail bond industry. Rising healthcare costs produce rising revenues for health insurers and providers. Rolled back protections against pollution mean higher profits for big polluters. Cutting government budgets (i.e. cutting taxes) and gutting collective bargaining rights add to the profits of virtually all big companies.
We need to align candidates’ interests with the public interest. We need to change the system so it rewards politicians who go directly to the people, speak straightforwardly about how corporate interests are opposed to the people’s interests and act swiftly to make sure we’re serving the people.
And the only way to accomplish this is to ensure every American has an equal vote in a fair democracy.
The way to win is to put our faith in Americans and protect their right to be a part of the solution.
Enforcing the Right to an Equal Vote is how we put our faith in Americans, trusting that the people will stand up and demand justice.
That’s what I did in California, raising up the voices of the people so we could go straight up against big tobacco, big oil, and big pharma. This was my approach against big energy companies in Michigan and Nevada, where we won.
This is the path that will keep us winning — tell the truth to the people, rally them with grassroots organizing, and protect their right to be a part of the solution. Because nothing is more powerful in America than the collective, unsuppressed voice of the American people.
In the November midterms, my grassroots organizations NextGen and Need to Impeach — and many more like them — helped generate sky-high turnout. With a 9% spread nationwide between Democrats and Republicans, the American people delivered a clear rebuke to Donald Trump and his party, who have governed solely for the wealthy.
In Florida, the people gave voting rights back to over a million former felons who served their time. Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado all voted to end gerrymandering.
So we have to keep tearing down the barriers to voting. Because an equal vote is the gateway to our freedom. Justice for all requires all to have an equal say. As Dr. King said, “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”
We now know we need an equal ballot—an equal vote—to secure the 5 Rights that will enable us to overcome every one of the critical challenges holding Americans back: Healthcare. Clean air and clean water. Quality public education. A living wage.
Repeatedly, Americans have done what’s been needed to protect and defend all of us.
Donald Trump and people like him have defined the “smart” thing to do as looking out only for themselves by gaming the system. But the American thing to do always has been to look out for one another. When you see a raging fire, the self-interested thing is to run away from it. That’s exactly what Mr. Trump would do. But time after time, Americans have run toward the flames to put them out. Because that’s the right thing to do. Repeatedly, Americans have done what’s been needed to protect and defend all of us.
On 911, we saw Americans run to the flames of the Twin Towers to help others. In the civil rights movement, Americans ran to the flames of burning southern churches to defend the rights of African Americans and of us all. We run to these conflagrations — whether they are attacks by foreign or domestic enemies, natural disasters or simple injustices — to stop the damage and preserve our communities. I see this kind of heroic behavior everyday, whether it’s firefighters braving the hell of wildfires or teachers braving underfunded schools to help educate the next generation. This is what Americans do.
Economic, environmental, racial, gender and social justice — everything depends on a government of, by, and for the People. Not of, by, and for the Money.
The Right to an Equal Vote for all Americans must be the central point of any Democratic Party platform. It’s essential to bringing us together to co-create the kind of society we want and need — a society where everyone belongs.
That means an end to suppression, an end to distortion and an end to corruption. It’s time to ensure, once and for all, that everyone’s voice is heard so the people can actually reclaim control over our democracy.
And this is where it starts: The Right to an Equal Vote.
Together, let’s tell the new Congress we need the 5 Rights.
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