Robbery in Progress — Your Voice is Being Stolen

The Republicans won’t leave much once they’ve made off with your right to vote. Here’s what you need to know and say.

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

Disenfranchisement doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?

That’s a problem.

The word is unhurried. Academic. Writing out all eighteen letters feels like sitting down to read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment while burglars are kicking in the front door and making off with your TV.

What’s needed here are words that fit the urgency of the situation.

Republican legislators in 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills designed to make it harder for you to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U.’s law school. A Washington Post analysis calls it “the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction.”

There is nothing unhurried or academic about that.

These legislators are not your father’s G.O.P. Maybe you saw the news coverage of the party’s recent Conservative Political Action Committee convention — the one where the stage was shaped like a symbol from the Third Reich and topped with a golden Trump idol. If the optics were disturbing, the words flying around the CPAC ballroom were worse. History may point to this as the spot where the party’s last remaining shreds of honor and concern for the greater good were extinguished.

The Republicans are out to take away more than just some election-day convenience. Although, if conveniences like the mail-in ballots and drop boxes added to make voting safer during the last election contributed to 2020’s record turnout, maybe that’s argument enough for keeping them intact.

Record voter turnout is a good thing in a government of the people, by the people, for the people, right?

Republicans disagree. They’ve been on a losing streak with voters. In the last two years they’ve lost control of the White House and both houses of Congress. They’ve lost the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 presidential elections. The politicians they do manage to elect represent far fewer voters than those on the other side of the aisle, thanks to years of gerrymandering and the un-democratic geography of the Senate.

Normally that would cause a party to reassess. Do some hard thinking. Come up with policies that might appeal to a larger share of voters. That’s how the two-party system keeps government dynamic.

Instead, Republicans have decided it’s easier to dispense with voters. The people have spoken. They don’t like what the people have to say. So their answer is to silence the voice of the people.

That would be your voice. That’s what’s being stolen here.

It’s basically the blueprint used to construct the brutal Jim Crow regime at the end of Reconstruction. In an essay about the death-by-filibuster of voting rights legislation in the 1890s, New York Times Columnist Jamelle Bouie gives us a clear-eyed account of how white backlash against the political power being exercised by freed slaves and poor farmers grew into systemic social and economic deprivation.

“By the end of the decade, in 1900, most of the rest of the South had followed Mississippi down the path of official white supremacy and total suppression of Black voting. Circumstances varied from the state to state, but the dynamics were the same: first came biracial agrarian rebellion, then new constitutions, new restrictions, and a new equilibrium of white elite dominance over land, labor and capital.”

In other words, we need to have a conversation about this as a nation. Here are a few ways to put some power behind your language, whether you’re working comms in a political office or chatting with relatives on Facebook.

Make it simple. Make it personal. It’s fine to talk about standing up for our democratic institutions. It’s better to paint a picture of what people stand to lose if those institutions crumble. The miserable last year of the Trump presidency serves as a cautionary tale of how entrenched minority rule leaves us all poorer, sicker, less safe and less free.

Lead with positive language. That’s how you own the high ground in the debate. Use words like voting rights rather than voter suppression or disenfranchisement. Take a cue from the long-running G.O.P. project to make the Second Amendment the only constitutional right that matters. Voting rights are far more deserving of that sort of absolutist language. Standing up for the American Voter may even become a long-term political advantage for progressives. Here’s a useful talking point. If Republicans can make people believe protecting gun rights is worth the occasional school massacre, then the rest of us can certainly argue that standing up for our most fundamental right as citizens is worth the spit-in-the-ocean effect of an errant vote or two.

Call out The Big Lie, and do it consistently. Take the oxygen out of the right wing’s mythology that Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election. Donald Trump’s blatant efforts to overturn the will of the people exposes the Republican game plan as a cynical and dishonest attempt to steal your voice in American democracy. The Big Lie is exactly the right language for this.

Draw a straight line from there to the claim of Republican politicians that they’re bringing up all these bills because their constituents have lost confidence in the electoral process. This quote from Iowa State Senator Jim Carlin is typical: “Most of us in my caucus and the Republican caucus believe the election was stolen.” No, this is a problem that’s been manufactured out of nothing because the solution to this non-existent problem creates a structural advantage for a party that’s having trouble winning fair elections. It’d be nice if we can have a civil dialog about all this, but it’s reasonable to demand that the conversation not begin with a lie.

Get behind H.R.1. Up to this point we’ve been talking about words. H.R.1 is substantiative legislation that makes it harder for statehouse Republicans to pilfer your voting rights. Think of it as a burglar alarm hooked up to your most valuable right as a citizen. Congressional leaders gave it the H.R.1 designation because a lot of the other things we need in this country will only happen if it gets passed. And that will only happen if a lot of us put our voices behind it. You can learn more about how to add your voice to the fight here.

One final tactic. Go beyond enfranchisement, all the way to enthusiasm. To me one of the cruelest new voting restrictions is a Georgia bill that outlaws “line warming” — bringing things like folding chairs and snacks to voters waiting in the long lines that are often caused by Republican officials limiting polling places in the parts of town where a lot of Black residents live. If one party is seeking advantage by making voting hard, the other may find greater advantage in celebrating this profound civic duty and making it festive.

Voting rights may be the political fight of our time. That’s what my instincts as a longtime observer of mass culture tell me. That’s why I thought it worth getting a bit into the weeds on language with this piece — to come up with messaging that’s powerful and simple enough to share.

Voting is the most important thing we all do together. When some of us have that taken away, we all lose together. A little over a century ago we let that happen, and we still haven’t repaired all the damage. Let’s put our voices together to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Writer. Observer of mass culture, communications and creativity.

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