The Fight for Voting Rights Is The Fight For Our Democracy
When Democrats in the Texas Legislature walked out of the capitol in May to stop a suite of anti-democratic voting laws, they cast a spotlight on a crisis that extends far beyond the Lone Star State. Since the 2020 election with its historic turnout, lawmakers across the country have introduced nearly 400 bills making it harder to vote: purging voters from the rolls, making it more difficult to register, cutting back on early and absentee voting, getting rid of ballot drop boxes, even banning giving out food or water to people waiting in line at the polls.
Each of these proposals disproportionately prevents people of color from casting their ballots, and each is egregious in its own right. (They also pose a question: If your best strategy for winning elections is to block huge swaths of the electorate from voting, what does that say about the strength of your candidates and policies?) Combined, they add up to an even bigger problem — one that encompasses redistricting, Trump’s “Big Lie” and the anti-majoritarianism we’re seeing from today’s Republican Party. We are witnessing a concerted attempt to destabilize the democratic process and delegitimize our multi-racial democracy, carried out in full view of the American people. As Democrats, it’s not enough to push back one law, one court case or even one election at a time. We need to fundamentally change the way we think about and fight back against this blatant, sweeping effort.
The fight to ensure that every citizen can vote and have their vote counted has long been the defining struggle of our country. This historical thread runs from the Civil War to the 13th and 19th Amendments to the Civil Rights Movement. The Voting Rights Act, and the laws interpreting it, have been at the core of much of the progress we’ve made since its passage — a view that, until recently, was shared by Democrats and Republicans. I was in the U.S. Senate when we voted 98-0 to extend this landmark piece of legislation. We sifted through thousands of pages of evidence and heard hundreds of hours of testimony that showed just how desperately the Voting Rights Act was still needed. After our unanimous vote, the law was signed by a Republican president, George W. Bush.
It’s heartbreaking and unacceptable that we once again find ourselves fighting the battles of the last two centuries. Today’s voting restrictions are no different from the Jim Crow past, replacing literacy tests and poll taxes with laws that, as one North Carolina judge put it in 2016, “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Much of the blame for this backsliding rests with the Supreme Court, which, thanks to the election of President Trump, is even more hostile to voting rights today than it was when it gutted a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. But the problem is more insidious.
Thirty years ago, Republican operative Thomas Hofeller said, “I define redistricting as the only legalized form of vote-stealing left in the United States today.” He became the primary architect of Republicans’ gerrymandering strategy, collecting data on race and voting behavior, then drawing statehouse maps tailor-made to dilute the influence of Black voters. Groups like the Federalist Society have worked for years to pack the courts with judges more committed to appeasing powerful special interests than to championing the fundamental rights of the American people. The emboldening of white supremacists and conspiracy theorists during Trump’s campaign and time in the White House along with the international movement against liberal democracy have exacerbated this perfect storm.
All of this has made it harder to vote, particularly for specific groups: people of color, students, the elderly and low-income Americans. This kind of disparity does not happen by accident. It reminds me of one of my favorite sayings from Arkansas: “You find a turtle on a fence post, it did not get there on its own.” It’s no coincidence that the restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans target people who are more likely to vote for Democrats.
Voting rights should not be controversial — and for the majority of Americans, they aren’t. Yet we have members of Congress who are wildly out of the mainstream, who vote to overturn the results of an election, and who use their powerful platforms to spread lies and disinformation. As a result, nearly two-thirds of Republicans now incorrectly believe President Biden was not legitimately elected. They point to debunked claims of voter fraud, discounting the votes of millions of Americans, including 87% of Black voters.
What happened on January 6th showed that these fanatical ideas can lead to real, even deadly harm. After the insurrection, I wrote about the failure of imagination that hindered our ability to prevent the violence in Washington. I quoted historian Taylor Branch, who asked in Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste:” “If people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” The months that followed revealed the ugly truth of just how many elected officials in America would choose whiteness.
In this pivotal moment for our democracy, people in every corner of our country are rightfully asking: “What can we do?” The answer isn’t an easy one, because there is no one step that will solve this deep-seated problem. Passing laws like H.R. 1 (the For the People Act) and H.R. 4 (the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) that make it easier to vote is an excellent start, but we can’t stop there. We need to call these attacks on voting what they are: part of a clear attempt to move away from a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy and toward white supremacist authoritarianism. We need to remain laser-focused on what’s at stake for democracy and people’s lives and refuse to allow Republicans to draw us into piecemeal fights over tactics and technicalities. Voters should have the ability — not just in principle, but in practice — to hold elected officials accountable in the voting booth. We should be doing everything we can to make it easier for eligible voters to cast their ballots.
When the people make their voices heard in an election, we should respect the results. These aren’t partisan statements; they’re attributes of a functioning democracy. Now is the time for anyone who cares about ours to stand up and fight for it using absolutely every tool in our toolbox: legislation, marching and protesting, speaking up, supporting people and groups advocating for a democracy that reflects the diversity of this country, and, yes, showing up to the polls at every election, not just the presidential ones. Democracies the world over have faced this challenge; how we respond will have a ripple effect around the globe.
Hillary Rodham Clinton is a former First Lady of the United States, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. She is a bestselling author, podcast host and the first woman to receive a major party’s nomination for President of the United States.