BY MEGAN GRAMLICH
Last week, police arrested more than 900 protesters who were occupying the U.S. Capitol as a means of protesting corruption and the influence of big money in politics. The movement, named “Democracy Spring,” kicked off with a ten-day march from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. Many protesters expected to get arrested, but felt that this sacrifice was necessary in order to further the fight for free and fair elections. According to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the movement aims to “draw attention to our corrupt campaign finance system and rigged voting laws.” This movement, with so many citizens getting directly involved and even more clamoring for campaign finance and election reform, is central to the restoration of our democracy.
Throughout our nation’s history, citizens have used civil disobedience to fight against injustice and oppression. In particular, the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests demonstrated that such actions are at times absolutely essential in order to effect positive change and to secure justice. In both cases, large portions of the population were disenfranchised from the political process and thus had no other choice but to engage in civil disobedience in order to gain national attention and demonstrate the pressing need for political, social, and economic change.
Similar to other instances of civil disobedience, Democracy Spring is crucial for ensuring that citizens get their voices heard in a political system that unjustly favors the rich (particularly rich, white, older men). Citizens United, a Supreme Court case that allows corporations to spend unlimited funds in elections, as well as voter suppression laws are currently undermining our democracy.
Our political system is founded on principles of self-governance and equal opportunity to participate in the political process. Yet, history has demonstrated that this ideal has never actually been realized. Early in our nation’s history, only white male property-owners were eligible to vote. Although African Americans and women gained the legal right to vote in 1870 and 1920 respectively, and property qualifications are now illegal, voter suppression remains a significant obstacle to achieving social, political, and economic equality.
Voter suppression laws target communities of color, the elderly, the youth, students, people with disabilities, women, poor folks, and members of the LGBTQIA community. For example, many Republican politicians argue that voter ID laws are necessary in order to prevent voter fraud. However, statistics show that voter fraud is extremely rare. Thus, the supposed issue of voter fraud is simply a cover for a tactic that Republican politicians use to disenfranchise voters that are more likely to vote democratic. Voter ID laws are essentially a poll tax, because obtaining IDs is oftentimes burdensome and costly. Those who do not have birth certificates or marriage licenses have to pay an additional fee. Further, many individuals cannot take time off work to obtain an ID. What’s more, offices that issue IDs are scarce in many areas around the country.
Burdensome voter ID laws disproportionately affect marginalized groups. Poor folks are less likely to have the means (transportation, time off from work, money to afford proper documentation, etc.) to obtain IDs. The youth and the elderly oftentimes face similar obstacles. Offices that issue IDs are more scares in or nearby communities of color. Women often face difficulties because of laws that require their names to be identical on all forms. Many voter ID laws require that any photo ID match one’s gender identity, which places an incredible burden on transgender folks who also face difficulties obtaining IDs that reflect their gender identities. It is clear that voter ID laws unjustly disenfranchise voters, particularly members of marginalized groups
Voter suppression is additionally aggravated by a scarcity of polling places in many areas around the country. Recently, Arizona voters faced incredibly long lines, some that were five hours long. This was especially a problem in Latino communities. By overturning crucial sections of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the Supreme Court enabled states with histories of discrimination, such as Arizona, to pass voting laws without prior approval from the United States government. In doing so, it effectively paved the way for increased disenfranchisement of marginalized groups.
The Supreme Court also hurt voting rights with the Citizens United decision. The influence of big money on politics undermines our democracy – and the ability of all citizens to effectively influence elections – because it causes many politicians to fight for the interests of special interest groups rather than the interests of the people. Further, Citizens United gives the rich undue power to influence election outcomes. In this presidential election, only 158 families have contributed about half of all donations. They are disproportionality white, rich, older, and male. The effects of Citizens United undermine the crucial democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” It has helped create a system that favors the rich (particularly the 1 percent), and it grossly threatens the ability of marginalized groups to participate in the political process.
Fighting unjust election laws – including voter ID laws, reduced access to voting booths, and the Citizens United case – are essential in order create the sort of vibrant democracy that is extolled by American political ideology. Further, it is a crucial for protecting civil liberties, especially of marginalized groups. Democracy Spring is an important movement, and protesters will continue to pressure our government to enact free and fair election laws, thereby advancing an unrelenting pursuit of justice.