Like most anyone with a heart and a pulse, I’ve been thinking about the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the future of our democracy. As Andrew Hulett notes on Justice Ginsburg’s legacy herein, we’ve lost a champion of humanist values and liberal jurisprudence: “One of the most powerful women in US history, she changed fundamental laws before she ever put on the robe and then remained a powerhouse of dissent against tyranny, bigotry, and sexism.”
I’ve been thinking about Breonna Taylor—the terror she must have felt in the final moments of her life and the bad policies and wrongly decided procedures that led to her death. And on a very personal level, I’ve been thinking about a member of my family, suddenly gone. An icon, a victim, a loved one—thinking about them all and feeling so strongly that the humanist impulse must combine the rational with the emotional. We have the potential to make sense of things (doesn’t mean we’ll all agree to act sensibly), but sometimes human suffering requires an outpouring of emotion and empathy. Likewise, we must channel empathy, emotion, and dissent in order to tackle injustice in our laws.
Ginsburg dissented in 2013’s Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, which found Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional. Section 5 is the preclearance requirement that prohibits jurisdictions that had previously engaged in racial discrimination in voting from making any future changes to voting laws or practices without first getting permission from the federal government. Getting permission has required proving a change wouldn’t discriminate against protected minorities. In the 5–4 vote seven years ago, the Supreme Court found the formula to determine who had to abide by preclearance to be unconstitutional because it was based on decades-old data. Without the formula, Section 5 couldn’t be enforced.
“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Ginsburg wrote in her dissent. Instead, she argued, “continuance would guard against back sliding.” She was right. Since then voting rights have gotten drenched, with thousands of polling stations in predominantly Black counties closed, early voting curbed, voter rolls purged, and voter ID laws implemented. (Paying tribute to RBG unfortunately requires one to remember all the times she was right and the majority decision wrong.)
Speaking of voting and rainstorms, the other night I dreamt of crates filled with mail-in ballots. I was among an indistinct group of people working to ensure a fair election by rescuing absentee ballots from nefarious ends. It was nighttime and a steady rain was falling. One batch arrived splattered with dirt and a fleeting thought went through my head: these came from the ditch the president talked about. I left the thought there, as I don’t think admonishing yourself over something you dream is particularly useful. Besides, I woke up to some really positive news about voting.
As minutely detailed by the US Election Project, 2020 has shattered records for early voting. The project is a website maintained by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald and distributed under a Creative Commons license. It’s very cool. You can search by state and in many cases see the number of mail-in ballots sent out per county and the number returned (updated in real time). By mid-October, for example, 25 percent of the 2,728,267 requested mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania had been returned, as had 56.8 percent of the 785,536 requested ballots in Wisconsin. Mid-October!
High turnout has also been the case for early in-person voting in states that allow it. The Hill reported that on the first day of in-person voting in Texas on October 13, over a million people showed up to cast ballots. In Georgia, over half a million people voted in the first week polls were open.
The biggest factor in the surge of mail-in ballots is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic; folks fearful of contracting the virus are opting to mail or drop off their ballots. It also reflects how important this election is to so many. The numbers who have or say they’ll vote in person indicates, as reported anecdotally, the concern among Americans that while mail-in voting may be safer from a health standpoint, their vote is more secure when cast in person. However you’re going to do it (or already have), I hope it isn’t unnecessarily difficult, that you stay healthy and your vote counts, and that we can all realize the dream of a fair and clean election.
And finally, a hearty congratulations to the very deserving 2020 Humanist of the Year, who represents California’s 2nd district and American humanists everywhere, US Rep. Jared Huffman!
Addendum: I regret to inform you that my position is being eliminated at the American Humanist Association due to strategic priority shifts related to the global pandemic. It’s been a truly wonderful tenure and I want to thank everyone on the AHA staff for their lively contributions, their individuality, and their collegiality. I want to thank AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt for giving me a chance and hiring me all those years ago and thank him and the AHA Board of Directors for affording me such creative and editorial freedom. I also want to thank you, readers, for giving your precious time to my musings over the past fourteen years.
The humanist worldview has never been more important–please know that the vital work of the AHA continues!
You may be expecting me to end with some kind of lofty platitude or even a Sinatra reference. Instead, in the spirit of our shared philosophy—informed by science, guided by reason, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion—I’ll just say, it’s been real.