People's hands are visible at a protest, with a megaphone and a sign that says "America 2020 Ain't Shit Changed" with the number 1968 crossed out. The White House is in the background.

Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash/DAME illustration


Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash/DAME illustration

Voting Alone Can’t Save Our Fragile Democracy

With 19 states passing 33 laws making it harder to vote, we need to do more than just get people to the polls. An electoral-justice journalist reports what we can do to make our votes count.

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It has been a year since voters went to the polls to protect democracy—but with 19 states passing 33 laws making it harder to vote and a voting rights bill that appears doomed in the Senate, our republic has never been more endangered.

One thing remains clear: The political will to bring folks to the voting booths cannot be left to political parties making last-minute power grabs. Outside of Congress and state legislatures, there is a lot more middle ground for people on these issues. Acknowledging that one party is obstructing the process is not a partisan statement; it’s a reflection on the current state of affairs. 

Introduced in mid-September, the Freedom to Vote Act is broadly supported by voters across the political spectrum. Retaining much of the For the People Act, the Freedom to Vote Act is widely seen as a necessary measure to protect ballot access. Such a commitment is critical to democracy, regardless of political party, and yet it is deliberately jammed up in partisan gridlock.

The past year has shown us that sustained civic engagement across all levels of government helps provide entry points into what may seem like a foreign process to many. 

Targeted days of action, like National Voter Registration Day, are important to get more people signed up to participate in the process. But as Lata Nott, deputy director of policy for State Voices has said, voter engagement requires more.

“First of all, it can’t just be around elections, it has to be year-round engagement,” Nott explained.  “And this idea that issue-organizing and election-organizing and community services, that they’re different things—I don’t think that really benefits anybody.”

State Voices released a report in May 2021 highlighting the collective power of our voices, votes, and power. In a section entitled “Uplifting Protest As Civic Engagement,” the organization highlighted examples of protests as a part of an integrated civic engagement strategy. Several affiliates expanded their grassroots infrastructure and led opportunities to connect with voters despite the pressing threat of the ongoing pandemic, economic crisis, and voter-suppression efforts. 

“When these voter suppression bills are introduced, I don’t think anybody’s sitting on their laurels waiting for the federal legislation that might wipe them out,” said Nott. “It’s all about advocating against them. And part of that is educating people about what that will actually do to their ability to vote, their ability to have their voices heard.”

Nott said that part of civic engagement organizing involves finding workarounds and alternatives to mitigate potential damage and protect our communities “as best as possible.” The bad bills will continue, but being prepared and keeping people informed will help ensure ballot access continues as smoothly as possible.

If we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that democracy is not a settled destination. It is a practice. Sustained civic engagement provides the critical mass to hold elected officials accountable and pave the way for new leadership to emerge. 

“The whole point of democracy is like: Everyone’s voice should be heard, everyone should be represented,” said Nott. But, she explained, because of the aim for inclusivity there’s always going to be a fight. “It’s about the law. It’s about legislation. It’s about removing those barriers to the ballot. But it’s also about getting voters to participate in civic engagement and investing in communities first.”

People are not simply consumers of the democratic process. Each and every one of us retains the ability to become vocal advocates for the issues that matter to our communities.

By focusing on protecting democracy and expanding opportunity for all, we avoid reductionist framings that simply pit one side against the other. Moving beyond partisan battles also helps people understand individual roles in advancing society.

The media—whose job is to inform large segments of the population—cannot continue to hide behind the false balance of both-sides coverage. Mainstream outlets also have a role to play in the fight to save democracy. Continuing to cover politics like a horse race distorts the reality of what is needed for sustainable progress. While such coverage might be good for clicks, it undermines the engagement in a healthy democracy. 

Pretending that “both sides” deserve to be heard when one group is consistently moving the needle and furthering intentionally false narratives is destructive to the very fabric of the nation. Even feigning good faith when the clear evidence before us says otherwise is furthering harm.

In late September, Politico unearthed emails and text messages by Florida Republicans that revealed why they were so eager to pass their voter suppression law: Not surprisingly, it was because they were worried about their inability to win in 2022. Given many of the provisions were crowdsourced from the Heritage Foundation’s action arm, it’s highly likely this sentiment was shared by Republican legislators in Georgia, Texas, and other states that have pushed forth extreme restrictions.

Acknowledging that Republican politicians are throwing away the very system that enables them to serve is not a partisan admission; it is the reality of our current political condition. But this isn’t new, nor is it simply a function of the Trump administration—it predates his reign. In 2015, Common Cause warned about the damage after the Supreme Court case Citizens United and efforts supported by the conservative lobbying group ALEC.  Model bills produced by ALEC were a precursor to the flurry of anti-democracy legislation introduced this year with attacks on voting rights, abortion access, and accurately teaching history. 

And while this might not come as a shock to some, it cannot be underscored enough how much is at stake with engaging in the political process besides showing up to vote in even-numbered years. Part of creating a culture around civic engagement is developing a practice and ritual around electoral organizing and community building. Deepening engagement could look like attending and participating in public meetings, such as city council, county commission, or school board. It could also mean volunteering with groups monitoring actions and decision making of local officials. In Georgia, volunteers for the Peanut Gallery track decisions and outcomes of local boards of elections. 

Programs that provide various opportunities for younger citizens to engage in the process, like When We All Votes’ My School Votes, create a new generation of informed participants. Part training program and part youth civic engagement, My School Votes empowers teens and young adults on the verge of becoming civically minded individuals.

This is a make-it-or-break-it moment for the American Democratic experiment that will not simply be solved by voting alone. Voting alone cannot undo the restrictive measures being passed around the country or gerrymandered maps for partisan gain. It requires a political realignment and commitment to building better for all without reducing outcomes to election winners and losers but in terms of real impacts on people and their communities.


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