Democracy’s Floor

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

The grave importance of local-level elections in your state can never be overstressed. Laws governing civil liberties and human rights, education, budgeting, insurance, transportation and urban planning, elections and government offices, gun violence—and funding for all of the aforementioned areas—are all legislated right at your state’s capitol. School boards make momentous decisions regarding curriculum, administration, and public schools in your community at large that directly impact you and your child. County boards can have the power to decide if an election will run free from barriers. Outcomes of Attorney General races will decide how harshly women and people who can become pregnant will be prosecuted for abortions. Cities direct law enforcement activities and influence accountability practices, amongst so much more legal jurisdiction.

“Elections have consequences” is rightfully a famous adage for good reason, and often, direct policy is not the only thing affected by those that wield the power afforded to them. Nicole Carr, Interim Executive Director at the American Humanist Association, described the unprecedented actions by Tennessee House Republicans to move to expel three Democrat lawmakers for protesting gun violence in’s staff note last week. She stated, “The unprecedented action by right-wing lawmakers usurped the will of voters and the people’s right to be represented by the elected officials they choose. Such actions only serve to perpetuate a culture of fear and oppression, and must be challenged and condemned at every turn” (Sign up for newsletter here). Interestingly, two of the three lawmakers, both black, were expelled, while the white member was spared from expulsion for the same actions. While some actions are being taken towards reinstatement after the apparent realization of a massive perversion of our democracy, the situation only serves to make clear that elections matter, and those elected to power will decide if you even get to have a voice at all.

Unfortunately, it is often an event or an incident that thrusts a particular issue into the spotlight. Whether it be a tragedy, or an injustice, the sudden question of, “how could this happen”, or “why does this continue to happen”, drones alongside the outrage that lay dormant since the last incident. This is not due to apathy (at least not for the most part, if one thinks of the glass as half full). Certainly, capitalism does tend to keep one busy and distracted.

The truth is, civil liberty and human rights issues require consistent, tireless attention to maintain a platform highlighted in the national discourse because those that wish to distort efforts in pursuit of equity are creative, loud, and do not sleep. Humanists, particularly those directly engaged in activism, often try to do the best they can to shoulder the weight of what they perceive as a multitude of different injustices. It’s reminiscent of a quote derived from the Jewish Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Challenges will persist. So shall we.

When it comes to voting rights, the fact that 2023 is not a midterm or general election year (an event or incident) doesn’t matter—it certainly doesn’t matter to state legislators who are working hard to pass restrictive and draconian “reforms” at this very moment in preparation for upcoming elections. Voting rights and election integrity are quintessential to the fabric of democracy. Humanists care about safeguarding and advancing democratic pillars because every voice deserves an accessible and equitable seat at the table. Without comprehensive voting rights and unrestrictive election policy, the goal of achieving a pluralistic and multiracial democracy remains flawed and unrealized. Every citizen deserves unimpeded access to a ballot. Every single vote matters.

Voting is the bare minimum—the floor—of one’s duty to promoting healthy democratic principles in the United States. In order for the majority with sentiments of justice and inclusivity at their moral core to prevail over a noisy though effective minority with undeniable, intentionally-constructed power, it is critical to partake in efforts that uplift access, such as civic education, election volunteerism, and support of civil and human rights organizations and watchdogs. These efforts, which bolster communication and connection at the community level, pave the way for equitable access and opportunity, center marginalized communities, and shine a light on solutions.

Yet, the ability to merely vote comes more easily for some than for others—and that is by design. Restrictive and harmful election laws are part of systemic racism, given the historical context of denying entire communities the right to chosen representation.

Just last month, the United States marked the 153rd anniversary of the formal adoption of the 15th amendment to the Constitution. The 15th amendment, adopted in the midst of Reconstruction, granted Black men the right to vote. It reads, “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

While monumental and celebrated by abolitionists, the amendment’s adoption only feigned a notion of fully-realized liberation, as “southern state governments effectively nullified the 14th and 15th Amendments. Nearly another century would pass before the nation would again attempt to institute equal rights for African-Americans in the South.”

States deployed numerous discriminatory laws as a tactic to strip Black voters of their power, including literacy tests, poll taxes, and the grandfather clause. Grassroots organizing, public demonstrations, and the activism of leaders like Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. struck down these disenfranchising laws with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These oppressive policies robbed marginalized communities of political power and orchestrated socioeconomic disadvantage.

And we must pay attention to what is happening in the present. In just the past few years, voter suppression has become a trend, taking many forms in election law overhaul: purging voter rolls, restrictions on mail-in and absentee ballots, granting partisan investigative authority, photo ID requirements… even banning distribution of water at the polls, being just a few examples. Voting rights are further curtailed through gerrymandering, and even through the continual subjugation of Washington, D.C. residents to empty representation from a Congress that subverts home rule.

To the untrained or perhaps unbothered eye, the language of these policies may not stand out as targeting at face value; proponents of voter restriction laws weave a narrative emphasizing election security, election integrity, and the combatting of fraud. But do not ignore or be fooled by the dog whistling—these laws are dangerous, racist, and anti-democratic. Eric Foner, a Colombia University historian, illustrated this well when telling NPR, “”Because of the 15th Amendment, you can’t pass laws saying blacks can’t vote, which is what [white people and southern state legislatures during Jim Crow] wanted to do…but the 15th Amendment allowed restrictions that were nonracial. This was pretty prima facie a way to allow whites to vote, and not blacks.”

The AHA is proud to have supported legislation at the national level that expands election participation and challenges discriminatory changes to voting practices, such as the Freedom to Vote Act, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, the For the People Act, and the Youth Voting Rights Act, and looks forward to further supporting them as they are reintroduced in the 118th Congress.

Given the historic struggle to enshrine for each person an inherit right to a voice at the ballot box, the question becomes: If the access and the tools are there, and you haven’t registered to vote or exercised this right, why haven’t you? Pay attention to your state legislatures. The majority of election-related legislative action happens here, by the people you’ve elected at this local level to represent you and your vision for your community. To start, check out the Voting Rights Lab’s State Voting Rights Tracker here.

The AHA affirms that inclusive voting rights are fundamental to democracy—every citizen disenfranchised is a step away from that. The United States needs modern, flexible, and forward-looking statutes now more than ever to protect voting rights and facilitate freedom into the future. As voting and election integrity bills get reintroduced in the 118th Congress, be sure to visit our Humanist Action Headquarters to directly tell your elected officials in Congress to prioritize and pass these critical pieces of legislation.