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The Right to Vote Is a Conquest of the Working Class. That’s Why We Defend It

The United States is undergoing the most concerted effort to undermine voting rights than at any time since the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The Left has a responsibility to mount just as strong an effort to defend these rights, which workers and people of color have shed blood to win.

Scott Cooper

January 22, 2022
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On December 14, the Associated Press released the results of its investigation into “every potential case of voter fraud” in the six “battleground” states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) whose 2020 election results the Trump campaign disputed. The review “found fewer than 475 — a number that would have made no difference in the 2020 presidential election.”

These votes, the AP states, “could not throw the outcome into question even if all those votes were for Biden, which they were not, and even if those ballots were actually counted, which in most cases they were not.” Further, the review “showed no collusion intended to rig the voting. Virtually every case was based on an individual acting alone to cast additional ballots.”

It doesn’t matter, though. Actual, consequential “fraud” has nothing to do with the rationale behind the attacks on voting rights that are sweeping the United States. It’s the illusion of fraud that is being constructed, promulgated, and used to justify the most concentrated attempt to liquidate U.S. bourgeois democratic norms in more than 150 years.

Voting Rights Won through Struggle, Not Congress

We are witnessing at this moment a wholesale assault on voting rights in the United States, deeper and wider than at any time in the country’s history since the concerted destruction of radical Reconstruction in the period after the Civil War — which established decades of Jim Crow segregation and oppression. Don’t be fooled by the mainstream media, which tells you this assault is the work of one party. While it may be the Republicans who are leading the charge in nearly every case, the Democrats have done nothing to stop them. That’s because democratic rights such as voting are never secure in a bourgeois democracy.

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In his “Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship” (1919), Vladimir Lenin wrote that “even the most democratic bourgeois republic is nothing but the instrument by which the bourgeoisie oppress the working class, by which a handful of capitalists keeps the working masses under.” He went on to cite “Marx himself, who placed the highest value on the historical significance of the [Paris] Commune, who in his analysis of it demonstrated the exploiting character of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois parliamentarianism, under which the oppressed class is given the right, once in several years, to decide which deputy of the possessing classes shall represent and betray the people in Parliament.”

U.S. bourgeois democracy is profoundly undemocratic. Well before the current assault on voting rights, the rulers established all sorts of restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, and obstacles to ensure that when the oppressed do vote, their choices are largely limited to candidates who represent bosses and who aim to strengthen the institutions of bourgeois rule. American democracy does not even come close to the mathematical formula that underpins the bourgeois democratic concept of “majority rule.” Consider the Electoral College and U.S. Senate representation, both of which give inordinate amounts of control to tiny segments of the overall population. They squeeze out the vast majority of working-class people and the specially oppressed, who mostly live in the states with the greatest numbers of inhabitants. Simply put, “the U.S. pseudo-democracy doesn’t even rise to the level of many other capitalist democracies when it comes to rights.”

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Still, voting rights matter, because they matter to the working class and oppressed, which won them through struggle. Voting rights will be central to the proletarian democracy for which revolutionaries fight. As Leon Trotsky wrote in one of his last letters, workers “wish to defend and improve democracy,” and the Trotskyists “wish to go further.” Going further does not mean that we do not fight to expand democracy for workers and the oppressed as much as possible under the capitalist system.

Women and Black people, in particular, struggled for the right to vote in this country. Upon the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, states exercised their power to set voting requirements. Generally, they limited this right to property-owning or tax-paying white males, who comprised a mere six percent of the population. It wasn’t until 1870 — five years after the Civil War ended — that the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting states from denying a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous servitude.” Another 50 years passed before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Fifty-one years later, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

Freed slaves and their supporters demanded the Fifteenth Amendment. Women waged a suffragist movement for 42 years before winning the right to vote. The movement against the Vietnam War was key to the voting age being lowered; tens of thousands of young draftees lost their lives, and those who fought and survived demanded a say in setting policy through the ballot box, raising the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.”

In between all of that, a deadly struggle was waged to reverse the voter suppression that was part and parcel of the Jim Crow system across the U.S. South. Having lost the Civil War and thus the effort to keep Black people enslaved, Southern racists succeeded in overturning the Reconstruction that had granted voting rights to emancipated people — and that led to the election of many Black representatives in Southern state legislatures and even the U.S. Congress. Since slavery couldn’t be reestablished, Southern racists chose to institute a combination of structural segregation and denial of rights, along with a reign of terror by the Ku Klux Klan. For decades, the Civil Rights movement fought to eliminate the poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright violence that kept Black people from voting, and blood was spilled. Eventually, this mass movement forced the federal government to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (specifically aimed at enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment), which until a few years ago made it next to impossible for states to establish barriers to voting.

The 1965 law put entire states — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia — and nearly all of North Carolina under federal review and gave the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division broad powers to intervene everywhere else — which it did routinely in other states of the old Confederacy, notably Florida and Texas, as well as in individual counties and municipalities throughout the country. But in 2013, ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered the Voting Rights Act largely toothless, eliminating the federal “preclearance” of jurisdictions’ new voting rules — often aimed at imposing voter discrimination in the form of redistricting, changing and eliminating poll locations and hours, and so on. The ruling shows precisely why we cannot rely on the institutions of the bourgeois state to protect our rights. The argument of the Supreme Court boiled down, essentially, to the ridiculous claim that racism no longer exists in the United States.

While federal review secured some voting rights for several decades, and substantial research shows that preclearance was directly responsible for increases in Black people voting and minority representation in federal and state legislatures, it is an inescapable fact that the government — which represents the rulers — offers no real, sustainable protection for working class and oppressed people when it comes to any of our rights. To this must be added the Democratic Party’s complete failure to protect the rights of the people it claims to represent in government. Just look at what has happened since the Shelby ruling.

A Wholesale Assault on Voting Rights

It seemed like only minutes after that ruling in Shelby that southern states in particular began to implement new voter restrictions, freed from the burden of federal preclearance. Alabama almost immediately redistricted to pack Black voters into fewer state legislative districts as a way to limit their votes. North Carolina imposed voter ID, eliminated same-day registration during early voting, and so on; a federal Court of Appeals found the state targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” The Republican majority in North Dakota’s state legislature passed an ID law that kept many Native Americans from voting.

By 2018, though, nearly 1,000 U.S. polling places had been closed by racist election officials, mostly in predominantly Black voting districts. College-age voters have had their rights stripped away with rules making it impossible to vote in their “adopted” locations — where they go to school — rather than back “home.” Both groups of voters tend to cast ballots overwhelmingly for Democratic Party candidates, and nearly every new voting restriction has been enacted and implemented by Republicans

Meanwhile, Democrats — the other party of the ruling class — have mostly sat idly by without taking any meaningful steps to protect voting rights while continuing to assume they can always count on these votes, no matter what. Meanwhile, in some heavily Democratic states such as New York, the party has erected registration and voting obstacles expressly aimed at thwarting progressive challenges to candidates of the party establishment.

Unlike most of the rest of the world, U.S. elections take place on a working weekday, thus already making it difficult for workers to vote. Few working people have time to wait for hours to vote, or can afford to take time off work to exercise a basic right. Moving voting locations far away makes things worse.

The 2016 presidential election was notable for its oppressively long lines at polling stations, and had nothing to do with the pandemic, as in 2020. To add insult to the injury of long waits, Florida has criminalized sharing water and food with people waiting in line at polls. The voter ID laws are an even sharper blow, often requiring forms of identification that many working-class and especially the poorest voters find difficult to obtain. Getting them may mean a full day off work. States that require driver’s licenses to vote are directly discriminating against the masses of people who rely on public transportation and don’t have this form of ID. And just to prove which voters are in the crosshairs, Georgia has closed many offices of its Department of Motor Vehicles located in areas that are predominantly Black, rural, and poor. Meanwhile, Texas and Georgia, for example, have cut back early voting hours on Sundays, a day when Black voters often bring “souls to the polls” after church.

In 2021, all of this expanded tremendously — largely a Republican response to Donald Trump’s inability to overturn the presidential election results from the year before. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, “at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting” between January 1 and December 7 of last year. Beyond that, “more than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.” The Center has been tracking voting legislation since 2011, and reports that these “extraordinary” numbers mean that state legislatures “enacted far more restrictive voting laws in 2021 than in any year since.”

A Qualitative Shift in the Scope of the Assault

During the 2016 presidential election, Trump — who has been diagnosed by a large group of psychologists as a malignant narcissist — went to great lengths to tell voters that his loss would be the result of a “rigged election.” When he won — which was a surprise even to the Trump campaign — his supporters began a concerted effort to undermine the norms by which U.S. bourgeois democracy has functioned in the post-Voting Rights Act era that goes well beyond the gutting of the act by the Supreme Court. Then, facing polls that indicated he would lose his 2020 reelection bid, Trump made the same claims about a rigged election during that campaign.

Behind these claims, there has been a qualitative shift in voter suppression efforts, from enacting restrictive rules to changing the way votes are counted, and by whom. The focus is now at least as much on keeping people from voting as it is, as the Brennan Center writes, to “interfere with election processes or even reject election results entirely.”

After allowing “partisan actors” rather than nominally nonpartisan election administrators to review 2020 outcomes in some states (like the infamous Arizona “audit”), there are efforts underway to have Republican elected officials decide whether votes are “legitimate.” If the party’s candidates fail to get the most votes, they could declare elections void — thus turning Trump’s false claim about “rigged” elections into a reality. It is how one of the bosses’ parties has decided to address the U.S. demographics that make its electoral future seem so bleak. It is taking the effort to subvert the Electoral College vote count on January 6, 2021, with a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, to a new level. Mark Brewer, an election lawyer and former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, put it this way: “They’re laying the groundwork for a slow-motion insurrection.”

As the Associated Press writes, Republicans are “taking hold of the once-overlooked machinery of elections,” running candidates who deny Trump’s 2020 loss “for offices that could have a key role in the election of the next president in 2024.” The AP describes how Michigan Republicans are “restocking members of obscure local boards that could block approval of an election, and GOP-controlled legislatures in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania “are backing open-ended ‘reviews’ of the 2020 election,” modeled on the Arizona “audit,” that are “poised to fuel disinformation and anger about the 2020 results for years to come.”

The latest move is to establish special police forces to oversee elections, something proposed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis and being discussed in other states. In Florida, the force would “investigate, detect, apprehend, and arrest anyone for an alleged violation” of election laws, acting on tips from “government officials or any other person.” The old name for an armed body of men empowered to keep people from voting: the Ku Klux Klan.

We Don’t Support Democrats, So Why Should We Care?

While the description of how this assault is playing out may seem to make taking sides a matter of choosing between Republicans and Democrats, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The sides are actually between the working masses and the most oppressed on one side, and the powers of capital on the other.

As Trotsky wrote in 1940, “It is the duty of revolutionists to defend every conquest of the working class even though it may be distorted by the pressure of hostile forces.” The right to vote is a conquest of the oppressed and marginalized. It didn’t exist before feudal property relations were overturned by ascendant capitalism, and it wasn’t granted to the masses without the fights mentioned earlier. Even if in a bourgeois democracy who we get to vote for is limited, the right to vote that we have won must be defended and preserved. It is part of the much broader democracy that we seek as we fight to replace the capitalist system of exploitation with socialism.

The assault is aimed at Black people, Latinos, and Indigenous people — most of whom vote for Democrats. It is also aimed at reducing turnout among working-class whites and young people who oppose the rightward shift epitomized in the Trumpist agenda, but that is not limited to the Republicans. When we defend the right to vote, we are defending a democratic right of the majority of people, not supporting who they ultimately choose to vote for. When we defend the right to vote, we are defending the limited democratic spaces we have wrested from the bosses under capitalism, in which we do all of our other political work. Those spaces include our own electoral campaigns, waged without illusions about the ballot as the path to replacing the capitalist system and its exploitation and oppression, but entered into as a means to engage with working-class voters and put forward a political perspective that points to fighting for our rights and for socialism independently from the ruling class and the political parties that serve their interests.

Without the voting rights working people around the world have won through struggle — that is, not as some sort of “gift” from the bourgeois state — revolutionaries such as Left Voice’s co-thinkers in Argentina would not have been able to run a campaign that won 1.3 million votes and four seats in that country’s Congress — helping advance the revolutionary consciousness of the working class in the process, without sowing any illusions that the electoral path is the way to overthrow the capitalist system.

One thing this assault in the United States has revealed is just where the Democratic Party really stands. It has completely failed to pass any legislation at the federal level to protect voting rights, allowing two insufficient pieces of legislation to languish throughout 2021 while Biden and his administration played footsie with two Democratic U.S. senators who have made clear all along that they have no interest in protecting voting rights: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Meanwhile, the misleaders of the Left who embraced Biden as the lesser of two evils have continued playing their role as the facilitators of channeling movements for social change into the Democratic Party graveyard, this time expanding that to include movements that could have been built to defend an existing right. It’s the same with voting rights as it has been with abortion rights. Where are the protests?

If the ruling class, or even a section of the ruling class, can so easily take away the right to vote, what will stop it from a full frontal assault on all sorts of other democratic rights working people have won through struggle?

We ought to be in the streets fighting to keep our voting rights. Yes, we know that the United States is not a true democracy, and it is certainly not the democracy revolutionary socialists aspire to build. We are committed to upending and replacing this system based on oppression and exploitation that metes out “rights” unequally depending on class and race and gender and sexual orientation. But the Left — the entire Left — has a responsibility that we are failing to meet. 
We can fight to defend voting rights without endorsing Democrats. We need the political space that democratic rights afford to continue to make the principled argument that it is only by self-organizing independently of the parties of the bosses that we can defend what little we enjoy under bourgeois democracy and extend our rights to a new society free of exploitation.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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