As we enter the 2020 election cycle, a handful of states are emerging as test cases for the future of democracy in America. One canary in the coalmine is Georgia, where in 2018 now-Governor Brian Kemp defeated Stacey Abrams by the narrowest of margins (50.2% to 49.8%) under questionable circumstances. Another is Arizona, where a wave of Latinx voter mobilization in 2018 has prompted the state legislature to make changes to early voting rules that could impact the eligibility of over 200,000 voters. In Wisconsin and Ohio, voting rights are being similarly threatened, something that’s likely to continue, given their crucial role in the 2020 presidential election.
These restrictions matter beyond just who gets elected. As demonstrated in a new comparative report from the Scholars Strategy Network, Securing Fair Elections, dysfunction in our democratic institutions impacts communities beyond the ballot box, affecting everything from long-term inequalities to our growing health disparities.
Just look at Georgia. Despite implementing an effective automatic voter registration law, statewide officials removed eligible voters from the voter rolls and implemented other ballot access limitations like identification restrictions. In addition, Georgia’s electoral maps distort the value of some votes relative to others. Indeed, by one measure Georgia has the 6th most gerrymandered legislature in the country, putting people of color and low-income voters at a severe disadvantage. Despite the partisan vote being evenly split in the Governor’s race, the Republican Party held onto 105 (58%) of 180 legislative seats. In other states like Hawaii the Democratic Party has an advantage from partisan gerrymandering.
These electoral distortions have consequences for public health and safety. Georgia’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, combined with other regressive health and environmental policies, results in greater inequality and health disparities. Life expectancy in Georgia and other restrictive states has declined as substance use and obesity-related diseases spike, while extraordinary racial inequalities in health outcomes, like infant mortality persist. Our unhealthy democracy is literally killing us.
While other states are lifting up barriers to voting and representation, state legislators in Arizona, Georgia, Ohio and Wisconsin are attempting to weaken turnout and game the 2020 election, while inoculating themselves from public accountability. In some cases the courts are serving as accomplices rather than defending voting rights. A Wisconsin county judge recently ordered the removal of over 200,000 Wisconsin voters from the state registration list. Their crime? They may have moved, and not alerted election officials. President Trump received only about 20,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin in 2016.
Fortunately, regardless of where you live or which party you support, there are steps you can take to reclaim democracy and protect voting rights for all. Right now, a sweeping anti-corruption and voting rights bill is sitting on Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk: the For the People Act of 2019 is the most important elections bill introduced since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and you should urge your Senators to sign on. But there is also work to do at the local level.
Push elected leaders to implement statewide voter registration reforms. More than a dozen states already allow people to preregister as voters when they are 16 or 17, preparing them for the responsibilities of voting. Bipartisan efforts have also led to the implementation of automatic voter registration in 16 states (including California) and the District of Columbia, an “opt out” policy that places all eligible citizens on voter registration rolls and keeps the information synced with other government databases.
Extending the time to vote through mail and early in-person voting reduces an important barrier for those who do not have flexible work schedules and provides an opportunity to mobilize voters to get to the polls. Allowing voters to drop off ballots in voting mail boxes, or vote at a center during an early voting period, have proven successful. Consolidating local and state elections with national races also boosts local participation.
If your state legislators still draw their own districts and choose their own voters, work to establish an independent redistricting commission. California and other states have proven the effectiveness of independent districting. Even if you can’t force your legislature to adopt independent redistricting through a statewide initiative, Virginia reformers have shown it can be done through the legislature.
These are just a few ways to renew the strength of our democracy and our commitment to political equality, starting now. Don’t let 2020 be the year that democracy died in America.
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