Fred McKinney (opinion): Taking a stand for American democracy

The body of Rep. John Lewis pauses at the top of the bridge for one minute while making the final crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the historic 1965 voting rights marches, while family members at right look on Sunday, July 26, 2020 in Selma, Ala.

The body of Rep. John Lewis pauses at the top of the bridge for one minute while making the final crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the historic 1965 voting rights marches, while family members at right look on Sunday, July 26, 2020 in Selma, Ala.

Tribune News Service

“Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property are the rulers.” Aristotle

In his book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines virtues as the median between extremes. For example, courage is between cowardice and recklessness. Justice is the median between unlawfulness and privilege. And democracy is the virtue between anarchy and autocracy. I think this ancient reminder is as relevant today as it was in the time of Aristotle.

This Sunday, March 7, marks the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day voting rights activists of all races attempted to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to secure voting rights for Black Americans. Civil Rights icon John Lewis and scores of other Americans were beaten by state troopers on the bridge named after the former Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK. While on this day in 1965 marchers were stopped on their way to the state capital to make their case, they continued to Montgomery and delivered their petition. It was because of this heroic American example of peaceful petition that the U.S. Congress was moved to pass the Voting Rights Act that same year.

Today, there are two streams of legislation that are going in opposite directions. Over 100 bills have been introduced in 28 states that are designed to reduce democracy under the guise of reducing voter fraud. These restrictive measures do things like restrict early voting, impose greater voter ID requirements and make it easier to purge more voters from the rolls. I would argue that these are solutions in search of a problem. The 2020 presidential election was determined by Trump administration officials to have been the most secure election in U.S. history with no evidence of widespread voter fraud that these bills are attempting to fix. The finding that there was no widespread voter fraud was also supported by more than 60 cases before state and federal courts.

The problem of voter fraud does not exist, but these efforts by Republicans in state houses across the country are clearly addressing the real problem as they see it. The real problem for these Republicans is democracy.

In Washington, HR 1 languished on Mitch McConnell’s desk for two years. This week, the House passed a politically more palatable version, the “For the People Act.” Both HR 1 and the For the People Act are designed to expand voting rights.

The “For the People Act” and HR1 were inspired and dedicated to the memory of John Lewis. The act would increase same-day voting. The act would allow early voting for at least 15 days prior to Election Day. The act would make Election Day a federal holiday. The act would support the overturning of Citizen’s United. Citizens United was the case where the Supreme Court inexplicably put corporations, labor unions and other associations on the same footing as individual citizens. I am sorry, corporations and labor unions do not and should not be given the rights of citizens — their shareholders and members already have those rights.

HR 1 would also increase voting rights for Americans convicted of crimes who have served their sentences and are back in society. Currently, there are over 5 million Americans who have been convicted of felonies. Twenty-four percent of these Americans are in prison. The rest are among us. States have used their laws to restrict access to the ballot to millions of Americans. These restrictions have had a disparate impact on Black and brown communities because our criminal justice system has had a disparate impact on Black and brown communities. Voting restrictions, in effect, extend their sentences indefinitely. There are six states, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi, and Wyoming, where over 15 percent of voting-age Black adults are barred from voting because of past convictions. Perhaps if these Americans could vote and participate in the democratic process, they would support things that made it easier for them to rejoin society fully and more productively.

As a former Washingtonian, HR1 would have paved the way for statehood for the District of Columbia. The population of DC is greater than the population of Wyoming and Vermont and about the size of Alaska and North Dakota. What is the case for not allowing the three-quarters of a million DC residents to have two senators?

Mitch McConnell is out as Senate majority leader, so this bill will get a hearing, but in speaking with Sen. Richard Blumenthal this week, he believes, because of the filibuster, the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate. (Blumenthal supports the bill.)

The question is: Why is there not Republican support for increasing the franchise to more Americans? The only answer that seems to make sense is that Republicans across the country are afraid of democracy. They know that if they do not change their mission and their direction, they will be relegated to dustbin of history. Their message of white grievance, intolerance and supremacy is not consistent with democracy. These are the vices Aristotle warns about that lead to autocracy, slavery and monarchy. Republicans will deny this is their motivation, but there is no denying, this would be the impact of their efforts to curb the franchise in the ways they are proposing.

It is up to Americans who love democracy to fight for it for every citizen and to call out these attempts at restricting the vote for what they are — antidemocratic. It is ironic that Republican leaders have been able to convince their base of voters that it is in their interests to restrict the vote because, if Republican elites are successful in these efforts, the next group that will be targeted as superfluous is that very base. Only increasing the franchise can protect us all and make us the country we claim to be. It is time for us to cross the Edmond Pettus bridge again — together.

Fred McKinney is the Carlton Highsmith Chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and director of the Peoples United Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Quinnipiac University School of Business. He is on social media at @drfredmckinney.