Last month I got to facilitate this year’s Voting Rights Convening called together by the State Infrastructure Fund. In beautiful Savannah Georgia, cradled by culture, and by stories of survival and resistance.
It was important to be among the people who live to protect the franchise. Democracy is under attack. Our hard won efforts are being rolled back. This most basic of democracy’s rights cannot be taken for granted. Most of us haven't had it for very long. The people of Puerto Rico still don't have it.
When I was a young man I was deeply influenced by the Brazilian intellectual Roberto Mangabeira Unger, and by the promise of radical democracy. He taught me that “democracy cannot be reduced to the sporadic episode of the vote.”
I took this lesson to heart. I knew that we could not outsource the responsibility of defining our collective future to a representative sitting somewhere else, very far away. Democracy is not about voting.
Democracy is about how we choose to live together. It is about the commons. It is about a sustainable human presence on the planet.
And yet it is true that voting matters.
In an unperfect system. In a game that is defined by the plutocracy. Where money is defined as speech. Under an electoral college. With a senate that is structured to give power to the few. In a winner-take-all game. Under an impossible binary that could never, ever hold our highest aspirations.
Voting was hard won. By those who would not have a king. By those who could not pay a poll tax. By suffragettes. By those facing dogs and fire hoses.
Voting is how I came into activism.
The goal was always the same. The goal was to expand the franchise. To bring people of color into the fold. To make it easier to vote. To get money out of politics. To make redistricting fair. To have instant runoff voting. To make it possible for more of us to have more of a say in defining our destiny.
Today, the game of media manipulation and a propaganda regime has many people believing that ineligible voters are shaping our elections. But the opposite is true.
Stacy Abrams spoke the truth in her response to the State of the Union:
Voter Suppression is Real. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”
I spent a few days facilitating a gathering of people doing work that is not glamorous or sexy. But that matters everything. Advocates. Litigators. Census Organizers. People facing down a wave that means to roll back freedom. I am proud to report back that these good people are holding the line.
One of the more interesting conversations was one led by digital organizers from Voto Latino, Push Black and Color of Change. What I appreciated about these young people on the leading edge was that their work is embedded in culture. They do not approach you once or twice around elections and remind you to go out and vote. They connect with you. They bring you messages that you are looking for. They share information and cultural engagement in a voice that resonates with you. They are in community with you. And it is in the context of community that they help to move your vote.
This is where voting rights and true democracy start to meet. First, we are in community together. Then, we learn to vote together. It was true for the Boston Irish who learned to rule my hometown. And so it will be true for us.