America was founded on an idea — that all people had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and if that right was to flourish, it must be grounded in democracy — in the basic right of all to choose their own leaders, to vote and have their votes counted. It was a revolutionary idea at the time and remains so today. Yet today across America — and in the past across American history — the right to vote is and has always been contested.
In Ohio, voters recently rejected Issue 1, a ballot initiative invented by Republicans in the state legislature to make it harder and more expensive for voters to pass ballot initiatives in the future. It would’ve doubled the number of counties needed for signatures to get an initiative on the ballot — and it required approval of 60% of the public for an initiative to pass, instead of the simple majority required now.
The goal — publicly admitted by the initiators — is to try to block the Reproductive Freedom Amendment, which will be on the ballot in November. It will also make it harder to pass an initiative raising the minimum wage that young people are trying to get on the ballot.
Ohio is a perfect example of how democracy can be suppressed. Having gained majorities in the state legislature, Republicans drew gerrymandered political districts to entrench their majorities. They packed the courts with partisan jurists. That left the ballot initiative as one of the only ways meaningful changes supported by a majority of voters can be achieved. Now Republican legislators want to make that process less accessible, scheduling the election in August when turnout is historically abysmally low. From Arizona to Florida, other Republican-dominated states are doing the same, while passing a range of measures to make it harder for college students, poor people, African Americans, and offenders who have served their time to vote. After voters in Florida passed a ballot initiative empowering former offenders to vote, Republican legislators passed measures to gut the reform.
At the national level, the new Republican majority in the House has followed suit, introducing a July election reform act that aims at making it harder to vote. It would overturn executive orders encouraging federal agencies to promote voter registration, require stricter voter ID and mail-in voting rules. In intervening in the D.C. laws on voting, it provides a model for the states that would ban same-day voter registration, require annual purging of the voting lists, ban community ballot collection, restrict drop boxes, ban universal mail-in voting, and more.
The measures all have one thing in common — they want to make it more difficult to register and to vote, impediments that hit the young, minorities, the poor, and the working class harder than the affluent.
Democrats in the House and Senate in contrast reintroduced the Freedom to Vote Act, that would end partisan gerrymandering, curb dark money in elections, protect state and local election officials from threats, encourage same-day voter registration, mail-in voting and more.
Lurking beneath this partisan divide is racial division. Blacks and Latinos (as well as the young) tend to vote Democratic by large margins. So, Republicans peddle fantasies about voting fraud in order to justify making it harder to vote. Donald Trump’s effort to overturn his 2020 election defeat was grounded on the racist assumption that voting in urban areas — Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Phoenix — was corrupt and fraudulent. There was no evidence to support that belief — as Republican officials informed Trump and judges ruled in some 60 cases — but Trump and Republican legislators peddle the lies to justify reforms to make voting harder next time.
The right to vote has always been contested in America. When the nation was founded, only white male property owners enjoyed the right. It took decades of struggle for working people, African Americans, women, and the young to gain that right. Again and again, an entrenched minority threatened by a growing majority imposes measures to constrict the right to vote.
That happened after the Civil War, as segregation and terror negated the right of former slaves to vote. It is happening now once more as the Republican Party seeks to consolidate its grasp against a growing, diverse majority. Democracy and the right to vote will always be challenged by those who fear the majority.