By Alex Mikuilch, Ph.D.
Americans won a crucial battle for democracy in the 2012 election. In the face of vicious racism, voter suppression and intimidation, hurricanes and inclement weather, millions of Americans endured long lines and witnessed to the hope of democracy: that government gains its power only by the will and consent of the governed, to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence.
There certainly is reason to lament the excessive influence of individual millionaires and billionaires when the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that total spending in the 2012 election will exceed 6 billion dollars, the most expensive in history.
In the face of the excessive influence of the super-rich, I stand in awe with all our fellow citizens—especially the poor and marginalized—who stood in line as long as eight hours to vote. As my colleague on the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team Tom Cordaro put it in “The real winners of this election”:
"Many of these hourly wage earners gave up a day’s pay in order to vote. They had to scramble to try to find childcare for their kids, and many were forced to bring children with them. The had to stand in line with limited access to water, restrooms and food; they stood in the rain and the cold; they stood up to the intimidation of so-called poll watchers; and they held each other up by encouraging each other to hold fast and not let anybody turn them around."
After a campaign that burned with racism and attacks upon the most vulnerable Americans from spokespersons for the Romney campaign, it is refreshing and hopeful to see how Americans turned out in support of one another and their democracy.
In spite of voter suppression in at least 12 states, including the refusal of Florida Governor Rick Scott to extend early voting hours when people were waiting in line for up to eight hours, it is likely that voter suppression efforts likely brought more minorities to the polls. In 2008, “if every black person had stayed home on election day,” explains columnist Charles M. Blow, Obama would have still won the presidency. In 2012, the President needed a coalition of African Americans, liberal whites, youth, and an increase in the number of Latino voters to win re-election.
Interestingly, Romney won 9 of 11 states that were in the Confederacy. Although Obama’s victories in Virginia and Florida were unnecessary to win the Electoral College, the demographics demonstrate the import of Latinos and the President’s broader appeal across diverse groups. The President won the white vote only in states with small minority populations, including Iowa, New Hampshire, Oregon, Connecticut, and Washington State. As Sue Weishar explains in her article, the demographics of the election may suggest new possibilities for comprehensive immigration reform.
When President Obama announced victory in the wee hours of November 7, he thanked voters who were still standing in lines in Florida as he quipped “By the way, we have to fix that.” After the election, Florida Governor Rick Scott defended his state’s handling of the election but signaled that he is open to improvement as he admitted he wants “a good process that people feel good about.”
The determination, endurance, patience and voices of all those who resisted voter suppression efforts, ought to inspire all of us in the enduring struggle for freedom and justice. We must remember their participation. As President Obama has always made clear, hope and change is not something that happens in one day or by one person.
Ironically, perhaps, the U.S. Supreme Court stated on November 9 that it will consider whether to eliminate the key provision of the Voting Rights Act—the “pre-clearance” provision—that requires jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting to get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing any election procedures.
This is no time to eliminate or reduce the power of the Justice Department and Federal courts to enforce voting rights. If anything, the election suggests the need for broader Federal power to enforce voting rights and free and fair elections beyond the pre-clearance provision.
After all, Ohio and Pennsylvania, states outside the original pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, were nearly successful in passing and enforcing voting restrictions that would have limited the access of minority voters.
And as a November 8 Tampa Bay Times editorial concluded, “Florida is state of embarrassment” because of the efforts of Governor Rick Scott and Florida’s legislative leaders who spent “two years passing laws that make it harder for citizens to vote and then further limited their access to the ballot box.”
The struggle to extend voting rights and end plutocracy must be carried forward. Indeed, the more difficult work may be ahead of us to hold the President and Congress accountable to the most vulnerable Americans who have no money or lobby to influence legislation. While election 2012 was a victory for democratic participation, the hard work of building the common good, especially by and for the most vulnerable citizens, remains before us.
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