Democrats' reforms don't go far enough for African Americans - Open Primaries
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Democrats' reforms don't go far enough for African Americans

Posted by Russell Daniels on January 07, 2019 at 1:16 PM

You can read the full article from The Hill here

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised, the first piece of legislation in the 116th Congress was House Resolution 1, which includes a package of voting reforms.

It’s a smart move for the speaker. She recognizes the public appetite for reforming our broken political system. The American people have moved “unrigging the system” to the center of the political conversation and Congress has promised to respond. This is positive.

But do Pelosi and other House Democrats understand what’s truly needed to unrig the system? We all watched Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) verbally battle President Trump over the government shutdown and the president’s request to fund a southern border wall. Shouldn’t the Democrats be taking steps to tear down walls and make government work for everyone by championing democracy for all?

H.R. 1 is incomplete because it fails to recognize important changes within the broader electorate and ignores structural changes such as open primaries that would empower millions of African-Americans, and many millions more Americans, to fully participate.   

The Republican Party leaders certainly do not have their finger on the pulse to broadly transform American democracy. From Georgia, where thousands of voters were purged from voter rolls, to North Carolina, where an investigation of election fraud is under way, to Michigan, where legislators are working to undermine the anti-gerrymandering referendum that won with 60 percent of the vote, the GOP plan for winning elections appears to include aggressive gerrymandering and cynical gambits to depress voter participation in communities of color.

Democrats point fingers at Republican malfeasance — easy enough to do — but voter suppression isn’t limited to red states in the South. My home state of New York, as blue a state as they come, has some of the worst election laws in the country. Every election year, hundreds of thousands of voters are purged from the rolls. Federal, state, municipal and presidential primaries are cynically scheduled on different days, evidently to assure lower turnout (and gouge the taxpayers). There is no early voting, no Election Day registration, no excuse-only absentee balloting. Democratic New York has the dubious distinction of having the second-lowest voter turnout in the country.

But don’t dismiss Pelosi’s plan. H.R. 1 is a response to a growing crisis in confidence that affects the entire country and a recognition that the fight to create a more perfect union must continue.  It will reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act so that election officials in communities with large minority populations must pre-clear changes to election practices. It will set federal guidelines for redistricting, prioritize security and election integrity and push national automatic voter registration.

These reforms will receive public support, particularly within communities of color that face the brunt of voter suppression efforts. But they don’t go nearly far enough.      

According to Gallup, 30 percent of African-American voters are registered as independents — up from 20 percent just 10 years ago. If the 2020 presidential primaries were held today, these voters would be turned away at the polls in many states not because they lack identification but because of their registration. This form of voter suppression is so enormous, and so bipartisan, that it is often ignored.      

Independent registration is surging, particularly among millennials. Fifty percent of what is now the largest group of voters by age are failing to affiliate with a political party. This trend towards independence is equally strong in the black and Latino communities. It is no longer the case that African-Americans who live in areas previously covered by pre-clearance laws automatically register as Democrats.  

Partisan stalwarts counter this by saying, “Closed primaries are not suppression; just join a party if you want to vote.” This is cynical, un-American, and contributes to the growing gap between the political insiders and the American people. The 2020 presidential primaries will be high stakes and every American should be allowed to participate. But in states where voters are required to register to vote by party — including Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, Connecticut and Arizona — millions of African-American independents, and 25 million independent voters overall, will be barred from casting a ballot.

The hard-fought battles and sacrifices, the marches and protests of the nonviolent civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, have enshrined in the American soul the doctrine of equal voting rights. But the vision of the movement to which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave voice was not a partisan vision. The continuation of the struggle for equal protection and full voting rights cannot be limited to combatting only those tactics that keep Democrats-of-color from voting. Closed party primaries — which are taxpayer-funded and government-administered — constitute blatant voter exclusion. The right to vote will not be free until every voter, regardless of party affiliation, can fully exercise the franchise.

If the Democratic House is serious about electoral reform, it will hold hearings, not just in Washington but around the country, and broaden the approach so that the final version of H.R. 1 is comprehensive and relevant. A reform package that strengthens protection and access for some, but not all, is not what we need. Such an approach actually may increase division and fuel cynicism about a rigged system.

Jessie Fields is a board member and national spokesperson for Open Primaries, a national election reform organization.

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