Most people would agree that our democracy is strongest when everyone can participate and every voice is heard. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more fundamental principle. But recent years have seen a steady push to undermine the engagement of everyday Americans in our political system, whether through the enactment of restrictive voting laws or the bulldozing of common-sense limits on big money in elections. Most recently, we’ve seen an attack on the functioning of an entire branch of our democratic system as GOP senators flat-out refuse to fulfill their constitutional duties by considering President Obama’s eminently qualified nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, Judge Merrick Garland.
While voting rights, money in politics and our courts may feel like three separate issues, they are fundamentally related — especially when you take a look at who’s been behind the attacks.
After decades of voting rights being expanded across the country through legislation like the Voting Rights Act and even a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18, for much of the country, this progress came to a screeching halt six years ago and, in many places, started going in full reverse. Since the midterm elections in 2010, 21 states have put in place new restrictions that make it harder to vote. It’s hardly a coincidence that these laws usually fall hardest on people of color, students and low-income people. Earlier that year, the Supreme Court handed down its infamous Citizens United decision, giving corporations and wealthy special interests unprecedented power to dominate elections and drown out the voices of regular Americans through unlimited political spending. And today, the reckless GOP obstruction on filling the Supreme Court vacancy is all about maintaining a conservative Court that continues this rightward trajectory and protects the interests of the powerful, corporations and special interests.
The funders bankrolling efforts to undermine voting rights are some of the same people behind the push to preserve and expand the outsized political influence of billionaires and corporations. The right-wing Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, for example, provided funding for the activist who organized the challenge to the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court case that gutted a key provision of the law in 2013. The Foundation has paid for billboards in minority communities with the message “Voter Fraud is a Felony,” condemned as voter intimidation, and has awarded grants to organizations with seemingly virtuous names like True the Vote, a group that raises the specter of “voter fraud” to push for more restrictive voting rules. At the same time, the Foundation has also funded groups like the Center for Competitive Politics, which despite the name advocates against limits on big money in politics.
Organizations like the Bradley Foundation are taking aim at representative democracy from multiple angles, funding both efforts designed to make it easier for the most powerful among us to buy more influence and to make it harder for the most marginalized among us to vote.
Or take a look at the Heritage Foundation, which has received significant funding from the Koch network and has been a major player in the right’s effort to dismantle democracy. When the Senate was considering a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United in 2014, the Heritage Foundation was busy pushing myths characterizing the amendment as a way to “silence free speech.” Heritage Fellow Hans von Spakovsky has been a national voice on so-called “voter fraud,” with a leading election law expert pointing to Von Spakovsky in particular as a key reason the voter fraud myth is “part of the main discourse... [and] part of the Republican orthodoxy.” And now Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint is among those urging the Senate to “withhold its consent” on President Obama’s nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.
Though couched in the misleading rhetoric of protecting “free speech,” preventing “voter fraud,” or “giving the people a voice” on the next Supreme Court justice, the right’s attack on our democracy is about one thing: consolidating political power among those already at the top. Some right-wing leaders don’t even try to hide the real goal. Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and founder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (which, by the way, has also been funded by the Bradley Foundation), once plainly stated: “I don't want everybody to vote … As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
The rash of restrictive voter laws recently passed in the states means that Weyrich’s vision is increasingly coming to life, with detrimental effects. A new study from political scientists at UC San Diego found that strict voter identification laws “skew democracy in favor of white Republicans,” depressing the turnout of people of color. The study showed, for example, that states that had strict voter ID laws saw a 10.8 percentage point drop in turnout among Latino voters, as compared to states without such restrictions. Those who don’t want everyone to vote might cheer the news of suppressed participation, but for anyone who wants a democracy where everyone has an equal voice regardless of race, background or political affiliation, it’s serious cause for alarm.
It’s important to note that these right-wing efforts to undermine a functioning democracy are not in line with where the American people are — including Republican voters, who are increasingly at odds with the party’s leadership on these issues. Sixty-two percent of Americans think the Supreme Court vacancy should be filled now. Eight in 10 Republicans oppose the Citizens United decision, and Americans of all political stripes want to see an overhaul of our country’s campaign finance system. Over two-thirds of voters support strengthening voting protections and restoring the Voting Rights Act. But that won’t stop right-wing funders like the Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers from doing everything they can to stand in the way of reform and turn back the clock on the safeguards protecting democracy for all.
Americans who believe in a better democracy have been organizing for years, and this April, people are taking to the streets of Washington, D.C., to fight these attacks and call for a democracy where all voices, and all votes, count. Activists will rally, lobby, speak out and even risk arrest in order to call on Congress to restore and expand voting protections, get big money out of politicslw and give Supreme Court nominee Garland an up or down vote. Opponents of reform may have a well-funded operation aimed at undermining voting rights, increasing the already-bloated political influence of wealthy special interests, and preventing our system of government from working like it should, but we have the power of the people. I’d bet on us.