By Kirk Clay
If you read the most popular headlines today, you would think that these are unequivocally the worst of times in America. They say that Congress wants to impeach the President of the United States. They say that the economy has stalled and Americans who work hard and play by the rules don’t have an opportunity to live the American dream. They say that our immigration system is broken and that the children of undocumented immigrants should be punished for what their parents did years ago. They say that voters of color have an unjust and disproportionate influence on the political system.
These headlines only tell part of the story. The backstory is far more complicated. For example, our economy has grown every month for the last five years. Unemployment is on the decline and has reached its lowest level in eight years. Added to that, our attitude towards comprehensive immigration reform has shifted to the point that now three fourths of the electorate believes that “deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States is unrealistic.” Lastly, most every American wants voting to be a basic right – like the freedom of speech.
So why doesn’t it feel like we’re making progress? Why are we so ready to believe the headlines? Sure, our economy is doing well but some of us are still nervous about a possible downturn — although there are no signs indicating that will happen. Is it that many of the jobs being created are low wage service sector jobs or tech jobs that involve cutting-edge skills? Is it because these are not the kinds of jobs that people living in poverty or losing unemployment insurance for the first time are positioned to take advantage of?
There has been a lack of progress in comprehensive immigration reform as well. Yes, a bill has passed the Senate and President Barack Obama says he would sign it but the bill has not made it to his desk. In fact, this policy may never be introduced in the House of Representatives for a vote. If it does the bill must also survive a grueling amendment process that is full of “poison pills” and middle-of-the-road compromises.
While politicians find it hard get anything done and continue to stall progress, deportations are at historic levels. In fact, the Congress member who calls for more boarder security seems to be really looking for an excuse to do nothing. Sure, the federal government has the obligation to address our boarder issues and crackdown on companies that knowingly break the law but we shouldn’t discriminate against any student that has been here for years, stayed out of trouble, and attends our schools.
Tying all of this together is our democracy and the freedom to vote. Politicians are now introducing policies that would manipulate election laws resulting in seniors and veterans – as well as people of color – suddenly not being able to vote.
In fact, African Americans, Latinos and young Whites are purported to be less likely than others to vote in midterm elections. While the current polling models that political experts use are barely an indicator for accurately measuring voter intensity for this demographic, we have to acknowledge their conclusions. They point to a trend that suggests voter turnout in these communities will decrease 3-5% every midterm election. If they’re correct, that would suggest a new negative dynamic in politics – one of our most fundamental freedoms is being inhibited.
The truth is that without the freedom to vote, we don’t have a democracy. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Right Act into law as an attempt to address widespread racial discrimination. Section 5 of the Act encompassed a preclearance provision that required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to obtain permission from the District of Columbia U.S. District Court or the U.S. Attorney General before enacting changes to their voting systems.
In 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down Section 4b of the law – the formula that determines which governments and locations are tied to pre-clearance. Following the Shelby decision, there are now deep concerns about the impact newly passed voting laws will have on access to the ballot box for all Americans. Especially laws related to early voting and voter identification.
These post-Shelby voter laws and other laws will greatly impact voter turnout for voters of color, women and young people. This is particularly troubling when combined with the demographic and political transformation occurring all over America. Not only will these laws affect turnout potential, they dilute the whole premise of our democracy where voting is intended to be the voice of the people.
Let’s look at Georgia for example, a state which is experiencing an extraordinary demographic and political shift. Its voter identification law that was signed in 2005 by Governor Sonny Perdue is one of the harshest. It requires that everyone voting in person has to have a state-issued photo ID for their ballot to count.
This law has a significant destabilizing impact on voters. Now that voters of color make up 33% of Georgia’s registered voters (30% Black, 2% Latino, and 1% Asian) this law is reminiscent to a “Jim Crow-era” act. People of color’s vote share grew from 32% in 2008 to 37% for the first time ever and Latinos will account for 52% of Georgia’s new eligible voters in 2016.
Laws like these only hurt democracy by slowing down the voting process. If we continue to overlook the real challenges of our economy, or neglect the people that our immigration laws impact, things will only deteriorate and foster an atmosphere of additional conundrums – saddling our children and grandchildren with an unfair burden of our creation.
Politicians should be about more than impeachment. They should pass laws to fix these problems. Let’s get active. #GA123
Kirk Clay, Senior Advisor