Gerrymandering Threatens Voting Rights – How Do We Fight Back?

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“I voted” stickers in English and Spanish, Virginia, USA, November 2014. (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) photo.)

As the 2022 midterm elections begin to loom on the political horizon, millions of voters in states across the country could find themselves in a newly-gerrymandered district. In February, the Supreme Court overruled a lower court decision in the state of Alabama, effectively maintaining an electoral map that would weaken the weight of Black voters by eliminating the one district in which they constitute a majority. 

It is unlikely the state of Alabama will be able to appeal this ruling before the elections, all but ensuring that the gerrymandered map will be the one that is used in the upcoming midterms. This is just the latest example of the broader trend of limiting the de facto right to vote for tens of millions of Americans that has been spearheaded primarily by the Republican Party in recent years. In the 2020 elections, only 61 out of 435 contested Congressional seats were deemed competitive. Less than two months into 2022, already the Republicans are expected to pick up five more seats, due to gerrymandered redistricting alone.

Voting Rights Under Attack

Along with his Build Back Better Plan, the Biden administration took office championing two pieces of legislation to defend voting rights, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The first would have set up automatic voter registration, expanded early voting periods, ensured more transparency in political donations, and limited partisan drawing of congressional districts. The second would have restored a key provision from the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was annulled by the Supreme Court in 2013: requiring that the Federal Department of Justice approve changes to voter maps in states and municipalities with a documented history of suppressing the vote based on race. 

Both were defeated within months of each other last year, due to the united opposition of the Republican Senate, aided by Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. It’s widely accepted among political analysts that voter suppression benefits Republicans over Democrats. 

This process of gerrymandering ahead of the 2022 midterms is only one part of a recent push to undermine voting rights. In the year 2021, over 440 bills with provisions restricting voting access were introduced in 49 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. At least 19 states passed 34 bills restricting access to voting last year. A great deal of the momentum from the right wing to pass these restrictive laws comes from the continued fear-mongering around voter fraud and perpetuation of the “Big Lie” – the idea that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump in favor of Biden. 

Besides undermining the crucial democratic right to vote, gerrymandering and voter suppression have dire political consequences. Where Republicans eradicate virtually any competition from Democrats, they only have to worry about winning a primary – which means catering to the farthest-right elements of their base. This month in Texas, one of the most deeply red states in the U.S., Governor Greg Abbott has ordered state agencies to investigate gender-affirming care for transgender children as “child abuse” in a clear appeal to this far-right base.

Are Democrats Fighting Back?

The question arises: If it’s in the Democratic Party’s own interest to expand voter rights, why have they been so ineffective at fighting for it? The Democratic Party has totally failed to fight for anything that would benefit the lives of ordinary Americans since they took office. They’ve used every excuse in the book (the Senate parliamentarian, the filibuster, etc.) to avoid a struggle against Republicans and the conservative wing of their own party. If the Democrats fought for voting rights half as hard as they fought to get rid of Bernie in the 2020 presidential primaries, we’d have won by now. The Democrats are allergic to anything that smells of a real movement because they know full well any collective struggle of working people will ultimately threaten their rule. 

The other side of the equation is that the Democratic Party is not all that interested in winning over young people or people of color to their voter roll. They are increasingly seeking to court suburban and middle class voters away from the Republican Party.  As Chuck Schumer put it back in the summer of 2016, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs…” This may give us a partial explanation for why they’re not really trying all that hard.

To the disservice of the entire working class, the left in Congress has similarly not put up a fight. Bernie Sanders and the Squad could have used their positions and authority to create lasting, independent organizations to mobilize and fight for progressive change. Instead of this, they chose to play the parliamentary game, to trade favors and rely on the promises and alleged “goodwill” of the Biden administration. The roughly 20 million Americans who joined protests following George Floyd’s murder have seen what follows when the responsibility for reform is handed to Democratic politicians – nothing.

Whether consciously or not, they have directed the energy and enthusiasm of millions down a dead-end road. Hopefully Bernie Sanders and the Squad can choose to become allies of a movement to overcome voter suppression, but at this stage they cannot be trusted to build it. While the task of fighting back against the combined weight of the establishments of both parties, the courts, and the administrative apparatuses of the state can seem overwhelming, there is plenty of precedent, both recent and historical, to give us confidence that it can be achieved.

Turning The Tide

The universal right to vote was not the product of the enlightened thinking of the Founding Fathers. Each step in the expansion of American democracy was won because ordinary people organized to struggle and win it. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was won, not bestowed, because thousands of students, community activists, union militants, and church leaders organized sit-ins, voter registration drives, demonstrations, and conferences which together constituted the Civil Rights Movement. The subjective willingness to stand up and fight back this most recent wave of voter suppression exists. 

What is needed is a genuine, mass struggle to defend and extend democratic rights. Beyond defensive struggles against racist voter suppression, we need to fight offensive battles to win voting rights for the millions who are disenfranchised. Winning and retaining the right to vote is a critical task for the workers movement, but it has to be combined with a struggle for a political alternative worth voting for. Neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties have the interests of the working class in mind as they toss back and forth control in Washington. We need a new, mass working class political party that is fully independent of establishment politics and big business. 

A new, working class party should fight for universal voting rights alongside a program of demands that will improve the lives of ordinary working people on a class basis, and it should use the methods of mass action and class struggle which have been key to every progressive step taken in our history.