Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

October 18, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

There’s a new trend on social media. Get in line to vote and start the stopwatch on your phone. Once you’ve cast your ballot, post a screenshot so we all know how long you were willing to wait.

We’re celebrating these stories as feats of persistence. The people will vote. Neither a pandemic nor shifting voting rules will turn them away. 

This waiting also points to a place where our past and our present-day collide. Let’s celebrate the scenes of democratic participation but refuse to allow that to become the end of the story. 

Scrolling through pictures of timestamps, “I Voted” stickers on masks, and fun with finger condoms, I heard an echo of a poem. In the first episode of The Who We Are Podcast, Boston’s Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola performed one of her poems. The full title:

I Cannot Wade Through The Past Without Waking The Dead.
I Cannot Weigh Wailing,
Summoning The History
As The Present Of This Country Is Homing The Haunting
Honing The Howls
The Clang Of Cuffs
Calling Chains A Lineage

Too many Americans have stood in line to vote for too long. These lines today started at the very beginning of the country. Too many people have waited too long, and they have received so little. The passage I hear from Olayiwola’s performance is:  

“…history has a
way of repeating or history
itself is repeating or history
is a reaping. ghost gun shot
locking us in the open field…”

As civic communicators, we can help others see this repeating. We can also help them see the alternatives. They, too, have been with us since the beginning. 

The proposals for the 15th Amendment in 1868 involved strategies for making a broad guarantee of the franchise. That’s not what happened, but these proposals can still help us expand our language about voting rights today.

In that Reconstruction Congress, Rep. Samuel Shellabarger proposed a draft of the amendment that matches the way we talk about the vote today. (Source: The Equality That Wasn’t Enough by Jamelle Bouie)

Shellabarger wanted to guarantee the franchise to all men with the plain language that would place limits on the states. His proposed text that started with “No State shall make or enforce any law” and protected “an equal vote at all elections.” The only people denied this protection were those convicted of “treason, felony, or other infamous crime.” 

Too many members of the House were reluctant to give up the states’ ability to limit the vote. They stuck with the original text that limited its reach to race-based discrimination. Protecting a role for the states in determining the franchise made Jim Crow possible. It continues today as voter suppression.

In the U.S. Senate, Henry Wilson picked up the project to develop text that matched the promise of equality. Representing Massachusetts, Wilson proposed a draft that read: 

“There shall be no discrimination in any State among the citizens of the United States in the exercise of the elective franchise in any election therein, or in the qualifications of office in any State, on account of race, color, nativity, property, education, or religious belief.” 

These proposals use language that expands and empowers. Participating in the franchise is the default. What would voting rights look like today if we concern ourselves with protecting “an equal vote?”

We would have to confront all the ways we have made voting unequal. We know to avoid the language of race-based discrimination, but we have accepted unequal outcomes all the same. 

After talking through our history of Reconstruction and the Civil War Amendments, Jamelle Bouie concludes his recent essay on Amy Coney Barrett’s originalism with a choice between two constitutions: 

“But even if it had a singular meaning, you would still have to make a choice about which Constitution to adhere to, either one written to secure the interests of a narrow elite or one written for the sake of us all.”

When we talk about voting rights, what is allowable and what isn’t, let’s persist in our obligation to that second Constitution, the one written to include us all.

No more waiting.

Shellee

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Questions of Civic Proportions

“Our history makes plain that the right to vote can be as fragile as it is fundamental.”

—Alexander Keyssar, Historian at Harvard University

How will a minority party of committed partisans and today’s “confirmation war” change the Supreme Court?

Writing for The Washington Post, Seth Masket works through the real problem of representation that has a corrupting influence on the process.

Masket argues that Republicans have a “built-in system advantage,” and that they “prefer winning narrowly with committed partitions than winning broadly with unreliable moderates.” That’s a strategy that explains President Trump and the current crisis over a rushed confirmation.

Since the Vice Presidential debate, there has been a whole lot of talk about how Democrats might respond to Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation with court-packing. Or that they will react to Republican court-packing with judicial reforms. Either way, Vox has an Explainer that revisits FDR’s failed attempt and considers a set of reforms proposed today. Adam Liptak has the numbers to prove there is limited support for changing the number of judges but concludes with a quote from Lee Esptien at Washington University:


“Today’s Americans, Democrats, and Republicans alike, who support structural changes to the court may be seeking to enhance the court’s legitimacy, not harm it.”

Is democracy a lost cause or our last hope?

Democracy might mean simply that most people vote. Or it might mean that as many people as possible have an opportunity to participate. Astra Taylor wrote a book about her conversations with a diverse group when filming her 2018 documentary film, “What is Democracy?. Her work brings Ancient Athens into a conversation with today’s activists, factory workers, and theorists.

In the introduction to Democracy May Not Exist but We Will Miss it When it’s Gone, she writes that she hopes that “reflecting on the philosophy and practice of self-rule in hopes that a more contemplative view will shed useful light on our present predicament.” With the help of Cornel West, Taylor describes that predicament as a tension of paradoxes:


“All this makes democracy a ‘leap of faith,’ as the philosopher Cornel West calls it, one that requires ‘living in tension,’ the tension of paradoxes unsolved and arguably unresolvable. The history of democracy is one of oppression, exploitation, demagoguery, dispossession, domination, horror, and abuse. But it is also a history of cooperation, solidarity, deliberation, emancipation, justice, and empathy. Which side do we fall on, where should the emphasis land? In the final hour, is democracy a lost cause or our last hope?”

I’ve heard other analyses suggesting that democracy proves itself in its resilience. Our moment is the latest stress test.

Good Work: Four Pillars Cases from Democracy Docket

Democracy Docket defends voting rights. Today they are managing 33 active cases in 13 different states. Founded by Marc Elias, the organization “shines a spotlight on voter suppression and offers expert opinion on how to fight it in all its forms.”

Marc Elias posts every decision and every appeal on Twitter. In September, he reported that the organization had filed a total of 56 lawsuits in 22 states and had already won 21 of those cases.

The organization’s website offers “voter dashboards” with links to instructions for voting in-person or by mail. Voters can work through a checklist to make their plan to vote.

The “Four Pillars Cases” point to the problem of voting by mail. Democracy Docket has identified four requirements that will protect the integrity of the vote while allowing eligible voters to participate fully:

  1. Postage must be free or prepaid by the government
  2. Ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day must count
  3. Signature matching laws need to be reformed to protect voters
  4. Community organizations should be permitted to collect and deliver voted, sealed ballots

Democracy Docket provides a full report of how vote-by-mail requirements vary by state. The four pillars represent an Executive Summary of the reforms needed across the country. Elias calls them safeguards and writes:


“Vote by mail is always good policy, but right now it is a critical part of democracy. As we implement it, however, we must ensure that all eligible citizens are given a fair opportunity to cast their ballot and —equally importantly— have that ballot count.”
 

These reforms will work to promote participation well after this year’s election. We can promote voting rights that include all of us with the four pillars too. Vote first but then make a plan to start a conversation with your state representatives about these safeguards for voting by mail.

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