“Democracy is better off when more people participate.” — Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot”
While we watch that riveting reality TV show called the 2016 Presidential Primary Elections play out before America’s eyes, it’s crucial we also look ahead to the real Super Tuesday: Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. That’s the day when all of us in every state are supposed to get the chance to decide who will lead our nation for the next four years.
But the real question isn’t who’s going to win — it’s who will get to decide?
That’s the subject of an eye-opening new book about the brutally effective reactionary attack on voting rights that’s been waged since the Voting Rights Act was first passed by Congress in 1965. In “Give Us The Ballot,” journalist Ari Berman begins with a deep dive into the fight led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., now-Congressman John Lewis and an army of brave citizens who put their bodies on the line to bring an end to segregation and make the right to vote real for all Americans. His book walks through the half-century since then to track the “counter-revolution” by conservative forces to roll back voting rights gains by throwing up so many practical hurdles to voting as to make the right to vote just an empty promise again for many Americans.
At a recent event organized by California Common Cause, Berman noted this year’s presidential election will be the first one in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. That’s because in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a narrow 5-4 majority in Shelby County v. Holder, gutted the core provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were put in place to eliminate voting roadblocks — such as literacy tests — that states with the worst history of voting discrimination used for years to disenfranchise African Americans and people of color. The success of the Voting Rights Act was demonstrated by the more than 3,000 potentially discriminatory voting rules and procedures it blocked from taking effect.
However, pointing to the historic election of President Barack Obama, Chief Justice John Roberts perversely concluded that because an African American had finally been elected president, the problem of voter discrimination had apparently been solved and a strong Voting Rights Act was no longer needed.
Predictably, conservative activists and business interests quickly moved forward in states with a history of voter discrimination to reshape the electoral landscape to their advantage. After Shelby, Texas, implemented draconian voter identification laws that disproportionately affect people of color and young adults, such as allowing people to vote with a concealed handgun permit but not with an official student ID or an expired driver’s license. A federal court found that more than 600,000 registered voters in Texas don’t have the IDs that Texas now requires them to have to vote. Other states such as Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina have passed similar voting rights restrictions.
Here in San Francisco, what can we do about this besides cross our fingers and hope a new justice gets seated on the Supreme Court soon to reverse the terrible Voting Rights Act decision? We can all participate. I’ll never forget the electricity of Election Day in November 2008, when an historic 81 percent of San Francisco voters packed the polls to elect a new president: The long line outside the polling place across the street from my office was there from the moment the polls opened at 7 a.m. until closing time at the end of the day. The kind of excitement and energy that brings record numbers of people to the polls balances out the power of the big money and elite who prefer we stay home so they can decide for us how our democracy is run.
Recent changes in California have made it easier than ever for every eligible citizen to register to vote or update their registration by doing so online at the Secretary of State’s website: wwww.registertovote.ca.gov. If you’ve moved since the last election, you need to re-register at your new address. Be sure to vote in the June 7 Presidential Primary election on not just national but also state and local candidates and issues, all of which have a huge impact on our lives. Then mark your calendar for Nov. 8, 2016.
Hopefully that will be a real Super Tuesday — an Election Day of historic voter participation and the last one where so many people who simply want to exercise their most basic democratic right are turned away and sent home.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.