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The Commons
Voices / Column

Your vote is your voice

All across the country, new laws are making it more difficult to vote, especially if you are not white. And the administration is packing the federal courts with justices who want to make things worse.

Elayne Clift has written about women, health, politics, and social issues since the very earliest days of this newspaper.

Originally published in The Commons issue #440 (Wednesday, January 3, 2018). This story appeared on page C2.


As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, Senate Republicans have now confirmed Donald Trump’s 12th federal appeals court nominee, setting a record for the most circuit court picks confirmed in a president’s first year.

The federal courts significantly affect almost every area of policy, including gun rights, executive power, LGBT rights, freedom of religion. Trump’s favored young, conservative judges for lifetime appointments will far outlast his presidency.

Take Thomas Farr, who received a green light from the Senate Judiciary Committee to pursue a lifetime seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Farr has a long record of defending laws that weaken voting rights for African Americans. He defended North Carolina’s voter suppression law requiring voters to present government-issued photo IDs to vote, and he was in favor of shortening the voting period and eliminating same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting.

Farr’s 38-year record speaks not just for itself but for many others who are making headway in their bid for political power in numerous states.

Among the disturbing presidential judicial nominees, who serve for life on federal benches, have been John Bush, who is strongly opposed to marriage equality and mocks climate change. He now holds a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th circuit.

Kevin Newsom was confirmed to a lifetime post on the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. He authored a law review article equating the rationale of Roe v. Wade, giving women the right to abortion, to the 19th century Dred Scott decision upholding slavery. He also argued that Title IX shouldn’t protect people facing retaliation for reporting gender discrimination, a position thankfully rejected by the Supreme Court.

* * *

The point is that at both state and national levels, people like Farr, Bush, and Newsom are making their way to judicial and political seats of power. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is vigorously against strengthening the Voting Rights Act, is among them.

In 2013, the Supreme Court, by a 5–4 vote, found that the Voting Rights Act had achieved its main goal so it overturned a section of the Act that had a formula for determining which states had to seek approval prior to enacting new voting laws.

The gutting of the Voting Rights Act marked a critical turning point that seriously restricted non-white voters. The ruling resulted in key policy changes that had provided protection against many discriminatory practices.

Since then, Republican legislators have worked tirelessly to push for further voter-suppression strategies that are proven to reduce Black voter turnout in elections.

Their actions fueled further gestures by the Trump campaign to suppress votes by Blacks, women, and others, especially in swing states, during the 2016 election.

* * *

Now, 20 states have new restrictions in place. Ten states have made their voter ID laws more restrictive, and six states have new, strict photo ID requirements. Seven states have laws making it more difficult for people to register, and six cut back on early voting days and hours.

In 2016, 14 states had new voting restrictions for the first time in a presidential election. In 2017, two states passed voter ID bills, and five states implemented new restrictive laws. Meanwhile, President Trump continues to claim, falsely, that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election.

The president’s unnecessary commission to investigate the issue — a commission that requested that states provide voters’ personal data — met with widespread condemnation, but it was supported by the Department of Justice, resulting in people removing themselves from voter rolls for fear that personal information would be exposed.

Nothing is more crucial to the survival of democracy than the unfettered right to vote.

* * *

As I reminded my college students during election years, “It’s not about the White House. It’s about the courts!” Almost all cases are decided at the federal level. “Whom do you want interpreting the law?” I asked, trying to instill in these first-time voters the realization that “the personal [really] is political” and that “all politics is local.”

I repeat that message now to voters of all ages, because so few Americans seem to recognize that we are experiencing a truly dangerous time. If we don’t exercise and ensure the power of the vote, our fragile democracy may well collapse.

But exercising our own vote isn’t enough. We must take back the vote, state by state, advocating for the rights of everyone, everywhere, to participate in the democratic process.

That means letting your elected representatives know that voter suppression must end. It means making calls, signing petitions, educating others.

Again, whom do you want interpreting the law and deciding your fate? Whom do you want representing your interests at the local, state, and federal levels, whether in city councils, the courts, or the Statehouse?

Your answer is critical, and your vote is your voice. And speaking of voices, raise yours to make a difference.

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