Undeterred by the Long, Slow Line Toward Democracy

Undeterred by the Long, Slow Line Toward Democracy

Undeterred by the Long, Slow Line Toward Democracy

Those long, snaking lines were about more than a vote. The people most battered and excluded from the nation's politics and economy refuse to be ignored.


In his victory speech, President Obama was generous with his thanks, notably showing appreciation for those who participated actively in democracy, giving a shout out to everyone who "voted for the very first time, or waited in line for a very long time," before adding to loud cheers, "By the way, we have to fix that."

Here's why we need to fix that. All voters didn't have to wait in long lines. When you look at the pictures, such as those collected by PostBourgie, you find mostly people of color in those lines that stretched literally as long as the day. Those voters, many of them low-income who missed work and had to pay babysitters to stand in lines that long, bore the burden of democracy so that we could move forward.

Not only that, but they withstood voter suppression, intimidation and utter confusion so that the nation wouldn't move backwards to a time where that and a lot worse was the norm during elections.

Since last year, America has suffered a wave of voter restriction laws that have sought to mandate photo voter ID, instituted onerous voter registration procedures, shrunk early voting periods, required people to show proof of citizenship to register and made tossing out provisional ballots easier. Most of those laws have been fought off or backed down by dedicated voting rights advocates and citizens. But too often, it has been people of color and those of limited resources who ended up at the front lines, mainly because it was their necks that were on the chopping blocks under these laws.

Neither Obama's nor Romney's campaigns focused on these people, choosing instead to focus squarely on the middle-class, when not the wealthy. It wasn't the middle and wealthy classes, for the most part, who bore the brunt of this election, though. Low-income and working-class voters, and black, Asian, Muslim, Latino and LGTBQ voters all jumped through hoops to make this election, and this democracy, as free and fair as possible, even when the campaigns failed to mention them.

For most of this year our Voting Rights Watch 2012 project, which includes a team of passionate community journalists, reported the burdens and the victories of social justice organizations and coalitions who confronted injust voter laws and deflated them. That reporting didn't end yesterday, and in fact, accelerated in many ways.

Take Aura Bogado's trip to the ever-browning Colorado where she heard reports of Latino voters and organizers being harassed by police. Groups like the Colorado Civic Engagement Roundtable mobilized Latino voters against stifling election administrators like Secretary of State Scott Gessler and voter harassment groups like Colorado Voter Protection, an affiliate of the nefarious True the Vote. Bogado wrote that Colorado's outcome could likely come down to the state's Latino voters, "But they may have to overcome unnecessary obstacles to cast their ballots."

Latino voters would help carry not only Colorado, but much of the nation. A national poll of Latinos reported that Latino voters favored Obama over Romney by a 73 to 24 margin before Election Day. Latino voters helped make Arizona a close race. As Seth Freed Wessler wrote in our live blog last night, "Arizona has been firmly in the Republican camp but as the population there becomes markedly less white, its partisan allegiance may change too."

Black voters came out in droves also, despite laws and poll watcher groups targeted for their discouragement. In Florida, many black voters waited hours in line under the hot sun while sustaining power outages and malfunctions with ballot scanner equipment. When NAACP volunteers tried to offer them bottled water and chairs to sit down, they were confronted by Republican and tea party elections observers who accused them of buying votes with this charity.

The same long lines could be found in Virginia, mainly in Prince William County and Richmond where thousands of black voters stood in lines until as late as midnight, even after the election was already called for Obama. In Virginia, over 450,000 people, roughly half of them African Americans, were unable to vote due to the state's harsh felon disenfranchisement laws—the same kind of laws that prevent over a million Floridians from voting, a quarter of whom were black citizens.

And yet civil rights advocates in both states soldiered on—I'm talking about Lillie Branch Kennedy, King Salim Khalfani and Sa'ad El-Amin in Virginia; and Lavon Bracy, Yvette Lewis, Belinthia Berry and Desmond Meade in Florida. Not to mention groups like the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, who helped assist voters get ID when the state called for it, fought for those who couldn't get ID, like Laila Stones, and helped usher voters through the confusion when the judge supposedly suspended the law—all of this while being called "lazy" by state legislators.

It wasn't just people of color who were both impacted by and had to fight against these laws. Gender and sex were central issues also. Yesterday, the nation elected its first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin, in Wisconsin to counterweight against the anti-labor Gov. Scott Walker.

More Baldwins are needed in Congress, where a number of men have been looking to define or redefine what rape is and what reproductive rights women should have. As of yesterday, most of those men are looking at the front door, like Missouri's Todd Akin who was trounced by Claire McCaskill. As in many recent elections, women's bodies became political battlegrounds, especially true for low-income and immigrant women who have been hardest hit by state cuts in programs like Planned Parenthood.

But what yesterday's election told us more than anything was that, as Julianne Hing wrote, "The steady browning of the nation is the undeniable reality in the nation's future," and that:

Nowhere is that more clear than in the steadily declining power of the white electorate. In 1988 white voters made up nearly 85 percent of voters, and in 2008 white voters were down to 76.3 percent of the electorate. The latest CNN polls confirm what many have projected for the last four years—the downward trend will continue. According to a CNN exit poll, white voters made up 73 percent of the electorate this year, a 3 percent decline.

Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly seemed to agree, saying at the election's twilight, "The demographics are changing."

He said this means the end of "a traditional America"—an entitled and privileged perspective that completely erases the Native Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans who all built this country, lived in this country as long as white people did, and also bore far more of the burden to help America realize the best of its "traditional" values. Colorlines.com publisher Rinku Sen Tweeted in response quite succinctly, "He's right."

Meanwhile tea party groups and True the Vote sought to make racial antagonization the last resort of preserving that white traditional America by deputizing themselves to enforce laws they poorly understood, while completely ignoring civil rights laws. They promoted voter ID laws, pressured and sued states to purge voters, and foraged through voter registration databases looking for more people to purge. They also challenged voters, unbeknownst to the electors so that they would be prevented from casting regular ballots, as we saw in Tampa and Miami yesterday. They also made fools of themselves, though, getting kicked out of a county in Ohio and being lambasted for fighting to block elections helpers from giving elderly voters water in long lines.

And yet these voters pressed on, and not just to vote for Obama. It's hard to make the case for this president to Latino voters, when he has deported more immigrants than any president, shattering families in the process. Even black voters have had their qualms, given high unemployment and a focus on the middle class that fails to address uneven playing fields in economic opportunities. So there was something more at work in those long lines and perseverance in exercising their rights.

Los Angeles resident Rowena Williams, who's 70 years old, stood three hours in line to vote yesterday, but said it was worth the wait. She said she remembered the civil rights movement and how people gave their lives so that African Americans could vote in the South. "As a black woman," she said, "I remember people dying to give people the right to vote."

She waited a long time for that, just like millions of Americans have been waiting a long time for a purer democracy devoid of racism, sexism, homophobia, economic despair and educational disparities. Like Obama said, "We have to fix that."

Brentin Mock

Voting Rights Watch’s community journalists were hard at work throughout election day. Check out their coverage.

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