The big lesson of 2020: We have to fight to preserve and expand the right to the vote | Opinion

December 16, 2020 6:30 am

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By Shira Goodman

Although Election Day has come and gone, efforts to erode our democratic norms continue at full strength. Voting is not a passive right, but rather requires deliberate action by citizens for its exercise.

Throughout history, even as access to the right to vote has been expanded, there have been concurrent efforts to erect barriers against the exercise of this most fundamental right.

These efforts have been by governmental entities and by people acting outside of government authority – but sometimes with tacit governmental approval – determined to limit historically marginalized communities, and in particular, Black people, from accessing the franchise.

These efforts have remained so strong and consistent because the right to vote carries such power. As one ad asked during this year’s election: “why do you think they are trying so hard to keep you from voting?”

Until very recently, you had to register in advance, show up at the proper polling place during work hours and wait in line on one specific day, or meet strict requirements to qualify for an absentee ballot and then get that ballot in according to exacting deadlines.

Masked, and from a distance, Pa. electors cast their 20 votes for Biden, Harris

In recent years, some jurisdictions have made it easier to register and to vote – moving to electronic registration, same-day registration, early voting, and mail-in voting. Even Pennsylvania has moved into the twenty-first century by permitting electronic registration (though still with a deadline weeks before the election) and last year, enacting no excuse-required mail-in voting.

These efforts have paid off. This year, over 150 million people voted in the presidential election, a new record.  Record vote totals are being set in states across the nation, and numbers of voters in all demographics are growing. This is good for our democracy. Greater participation – more Americans exercising this fundamental right – brings us closer to the more perfect union.

This cannot be seriously disputed – it should be a universally accepted, nonpartisan truth.  Yet, this year, this election season, this basic concept has been twisted.

Those who believe that having more people voting is not in their own partisan interest have sought to undermine this fundamental right and create a distinction between “legal” and “illegal” votes, even though data, evidence, and experience demonstrate the very low incidence of voter fraud.

This is not simply rhetoric; it can be an effective tactic to undermine confidence in our electoral system. If voters do not believe that elections are fair or that their votes will count, they will stop making the effort to vote. It is necessary but not sufficient that our electoral system is fair; it must also be perceived as fair. Attacks on the legitimacy of the election and electoral results undermine this perception.

And that’s the point. This battle is not just about the 2020 election; it’s about future elections and the ongoing conflict between making it easier and empowering more people to vote and putting up roadblocks to exercising the franchise.

There are multiple threats to our democracy, each of which must be confronted.

First, while the efforts to undo the current election results are being handled in courts and by state legislatures, as time progresses and pressure – political as well as through threats of violence – is being applied to elected officials, more damage is being done. We cannot tolerate the erosion of our democratic norms because of threatened political payback or actual violence. These threats must be denounced in a bipartisan manner by elected and nonelected leaders alike.

Second, the continued drumbeat about electoral fraud and illegal ballots is likely shaping the views of millions of first-time voters. Their belief in the process is crucial to their commitment to continuing to exercise the franchise.

Anything that undermines this must be combatted, by steady and consistent buttressing of the importance of voting by bipartisan elected officials, civil society leaders, and fellow citizens.

Third, we must be wary of those who will use the turmoil that has been cast upon this election to erect new barriers to voting in the name of election security.

Here in Pennsylvania, special committees are already promising to review the 2020 election, take a new look at the law passed just a year ago that established mail-in voting, and propose alleged “election security” measures that have already been rejected – such as voter identification laws. The battle lines are being drawn now between those who want to build on the steady progress to expand the franchise and those who want to erect new barriers to voting.

This is not a hypothetical; the danger is very real. At stake is the simple, foundational principle that when more people participate in democratic processes, our democracy is stronger. It’s worth fighting for.

Shira Goodman is the Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League. She writes from Philadelphia.

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