Gun violence, health insurance reform and education funding are often on the tip of the tongue of mainstream political commentators these days. But what you wouldn’t know from reading those headlines is that entwined in every political issue is a concerted attack on the right to a functioning democracy, manifested in voting restrictions and gerrymandered districts.
For the last 30 years and especially within the last decade, powerful interests have successfully chipped away at voting rights. States across the country are restricting alternative voting times and requiring government-issued identification to cast a ballot, disenfranchising those without forms of ID. This disproportionately impacts working Americans by tightening the window of opportunity to go to the ballot box, slimming an already tight timeframe of 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the workday.
But do not be fooled. Voter identification laws do not intend to stop voter fraud. Between 2002 and 2007, only 86 people were convicted of voting illegally out of 300 million votes cast. Voter identification laws serve one purpose, and one purpose only: to block the participation of Democratic voters and people of color. Further compounding the problem was the Supreme Court’s invalidation earlier this year of the main provision of the Voting Rights Act, the 1964 legislation that prohibited states with histories of segregation from passing restrictive voting laws without permission from the federal government, known as preclearance.
This systematic disenfranchisement of people of color, students and young people is a disgrace to the mission of our democracy. Racism is not over: Our country is not colorblind, and requiring identification at the polls is not going to stop nonexistent voter fraud.
So who is behind the blatant attempt to corrupt and dissolve our democratic process? Just in the past five years, more than 10 Republican-controlled legislatures have passed voter identification laws in the aftermath of the repeal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that (a person) will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
In light of this, it is completely reasonable to call for a national voting holiday, simultaneously empowering working Americans to vote more easily and preserving the weekend for religious observances.
In a number of states, conservative lawmakers elected through gerrymandering were instrumental in passing their voting restriction laws, including in states that used to be required to get preclearance from the federal government. Widespread in states in and out of the South, gerrymandering, the process of politicians manipulating district lines to divide opponents and concentrate supporters, is rampant because the overwhelming majority of states put their legislatures in charge of drawing the districts. This conflict of interest encourages those in charge to define them according to their party’s best interest, and this is the reason many states with a majority of Democratic voters are represented by a slew of tea partyers in Congress. The key to fixing biased districts is to remove the power to draw district lines from politicians. Fortunately, multiple states have instituted independent commissions to draw the districts, including California, Iowa and Maine. Hopefully, others will follow suit in the near future.
Making our democracy more accessible and responsive to voters will directly impact their ability to change the political course of the country. For a generation, the conservative movement has waged a largely successful scare-tactics-laced campaign to persuade us to incarcerate more people, raise the financial burden of receiving an education and believe in financial deregulation (which caused the 2008 crisis). When we turn to politicians to put a foot down, we instead find them drowning in a sea of cash that silences our voices before we’re even heard.
But chipping away at abortion rights is not going to make women abstinent, stacking financial regulators with commissioners who don’t believe in regulation is not going to absolve institutions of responsibility for doing their jobs and paralyzing Congress is not going to make us apathetic.
Too often, we millennials are stereotyped as overgrown teenagers who are too glued to our iPhones and saturated in social livestreams to care about politics or advocacy. But we proved otherwise in the elections of 2012 and 2008 and by volunteering more of our time to do community service than generations before us. Millennials have power, and we have the willpower to repair a system in desperate need of change.
Sofie Karasek is president of Cal Berkeley Democrats.