By Aswad Walker
By definition, democracy is a form of government in which the people of a city, state, or nation have the authority and equal opportunity and right to deliberate and decide legislation and laws that govern society, or to choose elected representatives to do so.
But what happens when certain individuals or groups no longer have equal access to the process? In such a reality many contend democracy is dying or, at the very least, under serious attack.
That’s the diagnosis many elected officials, social scientists and activists give Texas—a state they consider ground zero for the demise of democracy. And here are the reasons for their assessment.
1. VOTER SUPPRESSION
SB1, known by some as Texas’ “voter suppression” law, was viewed as so blatant in its intent to disenfranchise Black and Latinx voters that the U.S. Justice Department sued the state.
“Texas is ground zero for voter suppression,” said Texas Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, an assessment voiced by many, including State Rep. Senfronia Thompson.
“One of the most fundamental aspects of our democracy is the right to vote and it remains the most frequently attacked in Legislatures across our nation,” said Thompson. “The 87th Legislative Session was filled with a number of bills that disenfranchised Texans of color and were the most egregious, blatant and retrogressive our nation has seen since the freedom to vote was secured.”
Thompson added the voting measures Harris County put in place in 2020 helped Houstonians cast their ballot in a safe and secure manner during the height of the global pandemic. The voter suppression bill filed by Republican lawmakers was a direct attack on Harris County’s efforts to expand access to the ballot box by banning drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting.
Dr. Michael O. Adams, a political science professor at Texas Southern University, was even more blunt.
“Voter suppression and what we’ve seen from the Republican party, both nationally and in Texas, is designed to destroy democracy as we have come to know it in terms of democratic principles and in terms of voting as a civil right.”
State Rep. Ron Reynolds concurred.
“You’ve seen a big push towards voter suppression under the guise of voter integrity after a big lie Donald Trump promoted, but really they’re trying to make it more difficult for Black and Brown people to vote, and that’s unpatriotic,” said Reynolds. “It goes against everything we stand for in America, where voting is one of the most precious and fundamental rights we have in this country.”
- “The most powerful way to fight voter suppression is to give every eligible citizen the opportunity to use their voice at the ballot box.” (Gilberto Hinojosa)
- Restore provisions of preclearance lost in the 2014 Shelby v. Holder case that gutted the Voting Rights Act.
- Pass federal voting rights legislation.
- “There’s real apathy right now about voting, and that’s what voter suppression seeks to do—get you to believe things are hopeless.” (Reynolds)
- Voter suppression, by definition, severely limits the number of eligible voters who can actually vote. Voting alone is a very limited solution.
- The current lack of political will and presence of the filibuster have thus-far blocked passage of federal voting rights legislation and hence stymied restoring preclearance.
State redistricting, the drawing of new congressional maps, is done every decade incorporating the latest data from the U.S. census. At least, that’s the theory. The Texas reality? Not so much, according to Thompson and Reynolds.
“Redistricting was yet another blatant attack on the true representation of our democracy. The State of Texas has never completed a redistricting cycle without violating the federal Voting Rights Act and subsequently facing legal challenges by the United States Department of Justice,” said Thompson.
“During the Third Special Session, Texans across the state made their way to the State Capitol to voice their concerns and frustration with the gerrymandered redistricting maps that were intentionally drawn to deny eligible voters with an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choosing and that diluted the voting strength of minority communities. Despite objections throughout the Redistricting cycle, the discriminatory maps were still passed and currently face multiple lawsuits.”
“There is a growing shift in our demographics over the last 10 years based on U.S. Census data that shows 95% of the growth in Texas was because of African Americans, Hispanic and Asians. Ninety-five percent,” said Reynolds. “Many Republicans see that as a threat to their power if these minorities, who are more likely to vote Democrat, are able to vote. That’s why I and many of my Texas House colleagues broke quorum and went to D.C. advocating for federal voting rights legislation.”
- Vote in the midterm elections.
- Vote and encourage others to do the same: “I have encouraged people to double down and use voter suppression efforts as motivation to be more determined to vote, not less, and to vote your values.” (Reynolds)
- Successful voter suppression and gerrymandered redistricting maps in place that severely silence the voice and votes of Black and Latinx communities; also, see limitations to voter suppression.
3. CRIMINAL JUSTICE INEQUITIES
Though criminal justice inequities regularly make local, state, and national news, they are rarely discussed in terms of their impact on the health of American democracy, even though scores of elected officials and community activists connect these dots.
“African Americans, we’re at the wrong end of the disparities in our criminal justice system. Again, same crime, longer sentences, more racial profiling, more likely to have a negative encounter with police. Sandra Bland wasn’t an anomaly,” said Reynolds.
These inequities also include a cash bail system many dub “poor people’s tax” and make it better, in the opinion of some, to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. Harris Co., according to Robinson, has had some individuals jailed for up to six years before even going to trial.
- End qualified immunity, which allows police officers guilty of wrong-doing to avoid accountability.
- End cash bail: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill (Feb 2021) that makes Illinois the first state in the country to abolish cash bail payments for jail release for people who have been arrested and are waiting for their case to be heard. There have been other efforts to eliminate cash bail. However, bail reforms in New York and Alaska were rolled back or amended and voters in California opted to keep cash bail intact. Harris Co. got rid of cash bail in Nov 2019. However, part of it was rolled back in Sept. 2021 when Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bail bill into law requiring people accused of violent crimes to pay cash to get out of jail.
- Civilian Review Board which allows individuals outside of law enforcement to review incidents of reported misconduct, so police aren’t left to police themselves.
- There’s a current lack of pollical will to remove qualified immunity.
- The few cities and counties that have eliminated cash bail had to roll back parts of the changes. There has also been vehement criticism of the elimination, with detractors pointing to repeat offenders who were released from jail.
- Civilian review board nationally and locally have been criticized for their lack of subpoena power, investigative power and overall ability to hold officers accountable.
4. ECONOMIC INEQUITIES
According to Oren M. Levin-Waldman, professor of public policy at Metropolitan College of New York and a Research Scholar at the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, U.S. workers earning less than a living wage (the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs, including food, housing, and other essential needs such as clothing) is a clear and present danger to democracy. And because Texas is one of the few states that still have a $7.25 minimum wage, workers in the Lone Star State are most at risk.
Opposition to enacting a living wage has generally come from corporate leaders and GOP politicians who content a living wage will allow “socialism” to creep into cities. But proponents of a living wage contend such a move is inherently pro-democracy.
“There cannot be real political equality (democracy) without some measure of economic equality as well, because a society with great concentrations of poor people can be dangerous,” wrote Marvin Zetterbaum, emeritus professor of Political Science at the University of California, Davis, in his work highlighting 19th century social scientist Alexis De Tocqueville.
“Economic equality, then, effectively promotes democracy because it effectively reduces the pressure for redistribution,” wrote Carles Boix, author of “Democracy and Redistribution.”
According to many economists, providing Texans with a living wage would do much to slow what some consider the state’s attack on democracy. But economically, race, and gender pay inequity has to also be addressed.
“Equal pay is not just a gender issue. The data shows you that Black men get paid less than white women in some instances. And Black women get paid far less than white women in a lot of instances. So equal pay is both a gender issue and a racial equity issue,” said Carroll Robinson, head of the Texas Organizing Project.
Some scholars view pay inequity as an even more insidious attack on democracy than voter suppression because it de-incentivizes citizens from participating in the political process at all. And, according to the American Community Survey’s 2019 estimate, Texas is near the bottom in terms of statewide pay equity.
- Twenty-one states raised their minimum wage as of Jan 1, 2022, and none of those states had a minimum wage of $7.25. In addition to the increases that took effect in 21 states on January 1, four other states (Connecticut, Florida, Nevada, and Oregon) and the District of Columbia have minimum wage increases scheduled to occur later in 2022. Moreover, 39 U.S. cities and counties have minimum wages higher than their state minimum wage, ranging from $12.32 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to $17.54 in Seattle/Tacoma. Also, 10 states have passed legislation or ballot measures to gradually inch towards $15/hour as their state’s minimum wages. And D.C., often a punching bag for what’s wrong with government, has a minimum wage even higher than $15/hour.
- It is already illegal to pay an individual less because of gender, race, religious affiliation, etc., yet it still persists.
- Corporate leaders, who have an over-sized influence upon state and federal policies, often don’t see pay equity as a problem, hence, inadequate political will to get it done.
- Raising the federal minimum wage will have some impact on pay inequity but won’t impact salaried professionals.
5. ADDITIONAL ATTACKS
Additional “attacks” against democracy listed by academics and politicos include educational inequalities, unequal access to healthcare, the configuration of judges in the state and federal court system, along with the “Jim Crow relic” known as the filibuster.
“Regarding the health of democracy, if people who are more impacted adversely by lack of access to healthcare, lack of equal access to educational resources and a lack of non-partisan judges, if that constituency is being denied the right to vote, that’s a problem. And it goes back to what I said earlier, what the Republicans are trying to do is to constrict the vote and to deny those people who would be able to articulate those concerns to ever being a part of the political process,” said Adams.
INSIGHTS: WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Stay vigilant: “The struggle continues and we have to struggle every day. I come out a civil rights mode and recognize the importance of staying vigilant in commitment to the political process. Don’t lose hope. Continue the fight.” (Adams)
- Contact your local, state, and federal representatives and voice your concerns. Personal advocacy has more impact than most believe. Phone calls, according to staff of lawmakers, have more impact than emails.
- I do think democracy is under attack, but I think people have to come together and build the power necessary to fight that. To fight back, join an organization because there is strength in numbers. Get engaged with your community. Stay abreast of current events. Know what is going on politically, socially, economically in your community, definitely in your state. (Regina Gardner, executive director, Reclaim the Village Project)