The most important words in the American experiment are the first three in the U.S. Constitution: We the People. It is an audacious declaration that power should reside with everyday Americans, through our votes and civic action. The nation has never adequately lived up to this ideal, but it calls to us, and today amid a health pandemic that endangers America in every way, we can and must take steps to ensure all of The People have the power of a vote in our democracy.
That’s why we upended our lives.
In 2018, a group of Seattleites came together to create a new organization, Common Purpose. Our vision is a just and inclusive democracy founded on the sanctity of voting, the belief that all citizens have the right to vote and should be encouraged to exercise it. We are two of the leaders of Common Purpose, and for this work one of us left a management position at Starbucks (Charles) and one of us went on leave from a tenured faculty position at the University of Washington (David). Colleagues have made similar shifts. Since launch, nearly 2,000 Seattle-area volunteers — ranging from early teens to mid-80s — have joined us to work in partnership with organizations around the country registering voters and mobilizing them for elections.
Our impact has come in five buckets. First, we have traveled to knock on doors or texted, called and written postcards to register and mobilize 10,0000-plus potential voters in 20 states where a vote has outsized influence on U.S. democracy — think of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, Arizona and the like. Second, we’ve supported two dozen organizations inspiringly serving their communities, such as New Virginia Majority, Voters Not Politicians (in Michigan), Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and You Can Vote (in North Carolina). Third, we’ve worked on campaigns that restored voting rights to hundreds of thousands of voters in Florida and Kentucky formerly disenfranchised for life because of felony convictions. Fourth, we’ve worked to elect candidates who upon taking office have passed laws for more inclusive voting systems. And fifth, we have provided leadership opportunities to more than 40 racially diverse, millennial-age leaders, a vital investment in the future of our work and our society.
But we have far to go.
The reality is that, even with these advances, it is harder to vote today in America than at any point since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. As chronicled by Ari Berman in “Give Us the Ballot” and Carol Anderson in “One Person, No Vote,” since the 1960s there has been an effort, fully intentional and strategic, to enact policies that suppress — that is, make it demonstrably harder — to register to vote and to cast votes. Research collected by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University shows this effort is both partisan, driven by Republican Party leaders, and infused with racialized rationale. Here are three examples of the kinds of laws:
● Voter-ID laws that require people to show official identification to prove who they are. This sounds benign, but the devil is in the details: State legislatures decide which IDs qualify, and in state after state controlled by Republicans the approved IDs favor white people and more-conservative voters. For example, in Texas a gun license ID qualifies but an ID held by college students — younger and more diverse — does not.
● Removal of voting locations in targeted communities. Hundreds of polling locations have been closed by Republican-led states formerly monitored under a section of the Voting Rights Act ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. From where have these voting locations been removed? College campuses, in urban centers, in communities that are predominantly Black and brown. You might recall the seven-hour waits in the recent Texas primaries for voters at Texas Southern University, a historically Black university.
● Reduction in early-voting opportunities in targeted locations and on certain dates. Many Americans have schedules that require them to vote early, especially on weekends. But a number of states have cut back these opportunities — and not in random ways. In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled Legislature’s attempts to limit early voting were declared illegal by a federal court because it “target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” In response, the state’s Republicans passed a new voter-ID law in 2019, which is now on hold by another federal court.
And yet today, amid a frightening and devastating health crisis, we have two empowering democratic opportunities. First, Common Purpose and like-minded organizations must work even more closely together to create tailored and technologically-ranging voter registration and mobilization methods. We are doubling down on everything from old-school letter-writing to new-school texting voters, encouraging them to register to vote or to cast their vote. For example, working with Voter Participation Center and Sister District, our Seattle volunteers are mailing 10,000 letters with handwritten messages encouraging people across the country to register to vote; matching this effort with voting registrations will shed light on how we can foster civic power in our new remote-only world.
And second, we must create a national all-mail voting system in time for this year’s elections. Currently five states, including Washington, offer universal mail-in balloting for registered voters. Other states can adopt the same right now, or at minimum they should adopt a reasonable step: The 40% of states that require voters to provide a serious rationale to request an absentee ballot can simply shift to “No Excuse” voting, in which any voter at any time can request to vote by mail. These approaches are favored by officials ranging from Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., to Republican state governors to nonpartisan election officials around the country. At Common Purpose, we have launched a national campaign to push leaders to make it happen.
Any political official who opposes such a just and inclusive approach must explain why, in a time of national health crisis, citizens literally must put their lives on the line to vote. Many American heroes have, but today we must do better. Let’s make the words “We the People” into reality for our idealized common purpose to become genuine common power.