Barbara Peterson, PhD
Professor – University System of New Hampshire
Founder/Lead Scholar – Nonviolent Citizen Action
Veteran Activist for nonviolent struggle
Author – Reclaiming Power: Building a Stronger Resistance in the Age of Trump
Some activists claim that voting is something we do only a couple days out of the year, then we get back to the real work. It’s quite true that voting is the minimum one should do to participate in our democracy, but it is also essential. What’s more, it is an excellent litmus test to determining how strong our democracy is. If voting is little more than merely show, if our elections become so corrupted that the voting process does not allow people to elect those that truly represent the people’s needs, then we are not in danger of losing our democracy, we’ve already lost it.
Government coups are rarely violent military operations now as they were in the past. Instead, they are discreet and largely unnoticed maneuvers. Legislation that takes away people’s rights and freedoms is quietly passed without media headlines; outrage over political and corporate ethical violations occur, then are quickly forgotten and often normalized; and fair election procedures are slowly stripped away. This publicly undetected government transition from democracy to dictatorship has occurred in different countries around the world. The United States, despite what we may want to believe, is not immune to this danger.
There are several pillars that typically support democracies. One is the existence in society of strong autonomous (independent from government and corporate leadership and funding) organizations with decision-making powers. Another pillar is a reasonably unbiased and objective court system as well as justice and intelligence departments. Democracies also require a strong representative legislative branch that puts the people before party allegiance. And finally, fair and clean elections are a vital aspect of a democracy.
These pillars have been quietly narrowed and weakened for decades; yet, they have been attacked more openly and brazenly in the past four years by the Trump administration. We are seeing more laws passed criminalizing protest; corporations continue to gain more rights and power than the people; courts are being packed with partisan judges; our justice and intelligence agencies are experiencing new levels of corruption by lackeys and sycophants to Trump and his mob-like coterie; our elected representatives have opted for partisan loyalty over the expressed needs of the people despite the crises of the global warming and the viral pandemic; our election information is being co-opted by foreign influence and big money; and voting rights have become increasingly curtailed.
We cannot hope to have a functioning democracy when voting rights are manipulated and suppressed. Clean and fair elections are the foundation to a democracy, and when they are stripped away, the people cannot afford to stand by and hope for the best. In these past four years, Republicans have passed laws that serve as road blocks to voting. Poor folx, students, Blacks, and other persons of color, a majority of whom typically vote Democrat, are most impacted by purging voter rolls, gerrymandering, and voter fraud suppression. Purging voter rolls bars the culturally disenfranchised from voting. Greg Palast’s documentary, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, reveals that over 7 million people, predominantly people of color from Republican held states, were on a “cross check” list which was a list of people who were suspected of voting multiple times. Palast found that, although over 1million of these people were removed from their official voter rolls, none matched the criteria that were said to have put them on the list and therefore none were ever prosecuted for their alleged felonies.
Gerrymandering draws voting district lines to determine which geographical populations will send their winning candidates’ votes. These votes are then counted with all the other gerrymandered districts’ winning votes to be tallied as a total for the state. It is a pernicious attempt to unfairly control voting results. The United States is one of the few democracies in the world to employ partisan election managers. Democrats and Republicans in 33 US states have the ability to draw voting district lines to favor their political party. This partisan favoring is so extreme in some cases that their districting has been overturned in court. In Pennsylvania, for example, according to the NYT, the state Supreme Court ruled that the congressional map constituted a case of unlawful partisan gerrymandering, which greatly favored Republicans. This was a case of attempted voter fraud that at least ended well. Not all cases have such fortunate endings. CNN reported that in North Carolina, although a federal court ruled the districting map was unfairly drawn to support Republicans, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling.
In addition to voter poll purges and gerrymandering, Republicans introduced legislation to reduce “voter fraud,” which is itself fraud because there is no evidence of more than a handful of cases where people have attempted to vote illegally, despite expensive investigations and research meant to reveal it. Requiring IDs predominantly impacts the poor, elderly, and physically challenged populations who don’t drive and thus often don’t have and cannot easily acquire acceptable identification.
Other restrictions on the right to vote are laws giving corporations so much power that our voting process is unacceptably dominated by corporate influence. A basic tenet of democracy is that the government’s authority is based on the consent of the people. The ugly specter of corporate interference was popularly illustrated at the turn of the 20th century in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, where readers are shown that “consent” needs to be freely given, not coerced by strong-arm tactics from the mendacious partnership between big business and the politicians they fund.
Citizens United, a conservative group seeking the right for big money to buy elections, won favor in the Supreme Court in 2010 where the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was overturned, a law preventing corporations or unions from spending money on campaigns to decide an election. Corporate America, holding hands with conservative politicians, won over the Supreme Court and pushed through a law giving corporations the right to have far more say than individuals and even entire communities in deciding who is elected and what legislation is passed. In effect, corporations now have the legal right to subvert a fundamental basis of democracy: the right to self-determination with a government whose legitimacy is founded on the consent of the governed.
According to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), it is entirely unjust that our right to a free and fair vote has little to no legs because corporations, partnered with elected officials, “are able to influence not only HOW we vote and determine WHAT we vote, but even WHETHER we can vote” (emphasis in the original). If a corporation decides to set up shop in your neighborhood, for example, to start fracking, you and those who live in your community have no decision-making authority to protect yourselves from legally permitted corporate activity. As inhabitants of our local community, we have no authority to vote on whether or not any corporation chooses to do business that jeopardizes our local economy, the purity of our water, the health of our land, and the overall feel and beauty of our community. If a company meets federal or state-mandated regulations, that are determined by committees of persons most often not elected but appointed, then a company has the legal permission to violate any opposition the people have against them.
Through Citizens United and the big-money influence corporations have over government officials, our votes have a continually decreasing amount of power to determine the economy, environment, and health of our local communities. This violates our inalienable rights as democratic citizens. As stated in the language of a sample elections ordinance created by New Hampshire Community Rights Network (NHCRN), “All residents of this municipality possess the fundamental and inalienable right to a form of governance where they live which recognizes that all power is inherent in the people, that all free governments are founded on the people’s authority and consent, and that corporate entities and their directors and managers shall not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law which make community majorities subordinate to them.” Inhabitants of any municipality, town, or other local community, should be empowered to exercise their constitutional and democratic right to be governed by those who truly represent the people’s expressed interests.
Corporate influence over our government is eroding our democratic foundations and freedoms. More and more, people are prevented from voting for legislation that benefits them, against laws that harm them, and for politicians who truly represent them. Andrew Ross Sorkin in the NYT, reported on a recent study by professors Gilens and Page that the “preferences of the typical American have little or no influence at all on government policymaking. The study analyzed 1,779 policy issues in detail, determining the relative influence of economic elites, business-oriented and mass-based interest groups and average citizens. Their conclusion: ‘The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon public policy.’ Lawmakers listen to the demands of big businesses, which have the most lobbying prowess. Note that Gilens and Page’s data come from the period 1981 to 2002 — before the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in the Citizens United case.” When corporations rather than people determine our laws and policies, we no longer live in a democracy. Rather, a strong democracy is one that empowers its people to have a meaningful say in all policies that affect their daily lives. This requires that we are not overshadowed by the power of corporations, particularly in our right to have our vote count, and that no political party or official can take away our ability to elect a candidate who prioritizes the people’s needs.
When a nation, purporting to be a democracy, disempowers their people from voicing their needs and having them met, their support and their dissent of existing or proposed laws and actions, and their ability to play a genuine role in the decisional processes that shape the society in which we live, we have a nation that is threatening to be a democracy in name only. When such a nation also attacks our right to clean and fair elections, we have slipped past the threat and into the reality of a sham democracy. Voting is the easiest way to participate as a democratic citizen. And when that right is violated, the people need to wake up and see that our government, supported by corporate self-interest, is staging a silent coup to replace democracy with an authoritarian government run by oligarchs motivated by greed and selfishly destructive power-grabbing. That time is now.
Trump did not originate corrupt practices by the wealthy at the severe cost to working people, and the people will not be adequately empowered when he is replaced. Yet, Trump’s kakistocracy has exacerbated the corruption to such a degree that our government is in serious jeopardy of throwing all pretense of democracy away and bolding establishing itself as an oligarchy. The time is now for people to rise up, demand to be heard, and engage in collective nonviolent action that empowers us to be a government for, by, and of the people, a government that holds as absolute, the right to local self-determination to promote economic, socio-political, and environmental equity and justice. We need to bring the power back to the people; we need local control to build strong communities that meet the needs of all inhabitants and to create a government that is accountable to the expressed interests of the people.