Are Voting Rights for All Voters? Let’s Ask Hillary

Are Voting Rights for All Voters? Let’s Ask Hillary
Jacqueline Salit

Earlier this month, I was a guest on the PBS show Arizona Horizon hosted by Ted Simons. In the makeup room before we went on air, Ted told me his worries about the decline in primary voting — it’s down to 24 percent — and the anemic participation by independent voters. Only 12 percent turn out in major party primaries. We kicked the statistics around while checking the powder on our noses.

Naturally, Ted brought this up on the air, and we had a disagreement about whether independents feel apathetic (his view) or feel alienated (my view). The extreme culture of partisanship makes most people feel powerless, because they are.

The increase in independent voters — now 35 percent of Arizonans and 42 percent of Americans — is a statement about that powerlessness. When people choose a political identity that is other than what the parties want, it is an act of resistance, a step towards changing the partisan nature of the system.

In Arizona, the Republican Party runs the table, politically speaking, and it is wary of the rise of independents, trying to knock out a quasi-independent redistricting commission and considering a move to ban independents from any primary voting. In this regard, the Arizona Republican Party is aligned with the national GOP.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Democratic Party stands for anything other than that. If the Republican Party wants an Iron Curtain around its party privilege, national Democrats have taken to using an “iron fist with a velvet glove” approach. Such was the case a few weeks ago when Hillary Clinton, frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, formally entered the race.

Hillary began her campaign kickoff week with a speech at Texas Southern University. Her theme was voting rights, and she berated the Republican Party for voter suppression and fear mongering about voter fraud. She advocated for basic democracy reforms — automatic voter registration at age 18; 20 days of early voting in all states; and the restoration of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which provides an enforcement mechanism to protect the rights of African American and Latino voters. All good in my book.

However, what was telling about Hillary’s roaring rhetoric (she’s a feminist, we’re going to hear a lot of roaring) is what was missing from it: the rights of independent voters and the need to reform the primary system to make it inclusive and nonpartisan. Without addressing those issues, her voting rights appeal is, in effect, a form of voter fraud. If you don’t speak out against the barriers faced by all voters — including the 42 percent of those who have opted out of being members of a political party — you have distorted the cause of voting rights.

Historically, these questions have revolved around the status of African American and Latino voters, and, of course, women. These Americans were enfranchised by the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments. The Civil Rights Movement translated its vision of nondiscrimination and racial equality into the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, the voting rights cause has centered on protecting voters of color and ensuring full admittance to the political process. This struggle continues to this day, even as both parties use the issue as a political football to telegraph messaging to their core bases.

At the same time, a new self-selected political constituency has arisen in America, the independent voter. This includes an increasing and significant number of voters of color, who have opted for independence as their political identity. Does Hillary Clinton, voting rights “champion,” intend to speak for them, too?

In 2007, Hillary ran around the country, trading on her husband’s popularity, presenting herself as the candidate of African Americans. At the time, the country’s leading Black independent, Dr. Lenora Fulani, an early Obama supporter, asked “Who decided Hillary was best for the Black community?” Black America decided she wasn’t.

Today, I ask another question. Who decided Hillary is the champion of voting rights?

In Arizona, for example, 50 percent of Latinos are independents. But come the presidential primary on March 29, they will not be permitted to vote in either party primary, because the presidential primaries are a “members only” affair. They won’t even be able to vote for Hillary Clinton! Isn’t that practice a conspicuous form of voter suppression?

Young people coming of age politically, more than half of whom identify as independents, will also find themselves locked out of primary voting. In nearly every state, meanwhile, the taxpayers are footing the bill for an exclusionary system.

Hillary proclaimed that Americans are “problem solvers” and that “our political system is so paralyzed in gridlock” that the American people have lost trust in government. However, she says, “We don’t hide from change, we harness it.”

Hillary, here’s your chance to do that. Even though you are a Democrat — actually because you are a Democrat — don’t hide from the fact that 42 percent of Americans are independents. Don’t demean the cause of voting rights, to suit your political purposes. Fight to give all voters — including independents — the chance to vote and to build bridges together, regardless of party affiliation. That’s how the American people can solve our problems.

In Arizona, that challenge is looming. The acute education crisis can only be resolved if people come together across party (and no party) lines. Governor Ducey and the Legislature can’t get it done, because they are too vested in party power. Any and all barriers to nonpartisan alliances need to be struck down to make change possible.

My message to Hillary, woman to woman, is this. If you are not prepared to challenge your own party to fight for voter freedom for all the American people, then you shouldn’t be president. And that goes for Jeb and Bernie and Carly and Rand and Marco and Martin and the rest. When they come to Arizona, the independents will have to tell them so.

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