Much of the discussion this election cycle has been about changing demographics. But demographics alone aren’t going to run a policy agenda through the system. Huge challenges remain in economic justice, immigration, environment, education and housing reform.
Much of the discussion this election cycle has been about changing demographics.
Black voters turned out overwhelmingly for Obama. Millennial voters, who represent the start of the next demographic phase, did too. Republicans are blaming each other for losing the Latino vote; Steve Schmidt, head of McCain’s 2008 campaign, told MSNBC this was the last election that someone could possibly win without getting a good portion of Latinos, which of course Gov. Romney didn’t. Mike Huckabee said Republicans have done a terrible job of reaching out to people of color, while DREAMers are claiming credit—and I’ll give it to them—for forcing POTUS’s hand to deliver the Deferred Action executive order, which in turn delivered him many Latino votes.
But demographics alone aren’t going to run a policy agenda through the system. It’s not like we, people of color, can just exist and, as a result, lead politicians to pass helpful policies simply by asking. Huge challenges remain in economic justice, immigration, environment, education and housing reform. The nation’s understanding of what it will take to generate racial, economic and gender equity remains shallow, focused largely on how new constituencies threaten the old white way, per Bill O’Reilly.
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But if we keep doing our work, if we keep fighting, that collective understanding will deepen in ways that make some real breakthroughs possible.
Voting yesterday, I paid more attention than I usually do. My polling place is a school gymnasium around the corner from my apartment in Rego Park, Queens. There were about 20 voters and as many poll workers at 9:30 a.m. The mood was hushed—serious but not solemn. People smiled at each other. Many older voters of all colors, though heavy on the Eastern Europeans as is the neighborhood. The poll workers were diverse, and there were interpreters for Hindi, Chinese, and Spanish. A smiling woman in a suit posed for a picture and I thought “new immigrant voter.” It was different from 2008, when Election Day had the “historic” mantle. Yesterday, I felt like I was doing an everyday kind of thing with my neighbors, not so glamorous as the last time but just as important. To be honest, I don’t find elections the most compelling form of political activity, and I often vote with a feeling of being on auto pilot.
But over the last few months, I’ve been influenced by my friend Judith Browne-Dianis. Browne-Dianis is the director of the Advancement Project, which has been doing stellar work to protect the vote, as it does every election season. Every time she talks about voter suppression, I see her calling up childhood memories of going with her mother to the polls. I see her acknowledging her elders for making sure she’d be able to vote in the first place. I see her putting on notice anyone who dares attempt suppression on her watch. Her passion for a fair democracy has been reinforced by our own Voting Rights Watch project, which has me all agitated about that suppression, too.
The way the voting rights community has come together with groups like Color of Change, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and Take Action Minnesota has been astounding in the sheer volume of resistance, monitoring, problem-solving and communication. My social media feeds made it clear that people were looking after each other at the polls. The memes of this election for me will always be “stay in line!” and “don’t let anyone tell you you can’t vote!”
And that’s the message I take into today. Stay until it’s done, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. The last four years has taught me that presidents matter, but movements matter more. Politicians, and everyday Americans too, do great things when movements make it impossible to do anything else. The tone and energy that went into preventing voter suppression, combined with the tone and energy of my polling place this morning, is what we need to ride for the next four years. It is an outraged, urgent force that changes how we look at things, combined with a respectful inclusiveness that enables everyone to participate.
Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.
On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Her speech included many of the elements one expects from a nominee, but there were some standout moments—like when she mentioned disability rights, which she did repeatedly.
Clinton integrated disability into her discussion of her record, talking about her work to ensure that disabled children have the right to go to school and bringing up the health-care needs of disabled youth. Her commentary reinforced the fact that she has always cared about disability issues, particularly in the context of children’s rights.
But she did more than that. She referenced shortages of mental health beds. She explicitly called out disability rights as necessary to defend. And at one point, she did not mention disability, which in itself was radical. When she outlined her plans for gun reform and clearly stated that she wanted to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, she referenced people with criminal histories and terrorists, but not mentally ill people, who have been fighting a surge in stigma thanks to perennial (and wildly incorrect) assertions that mental illness causes violence. That omission was clearly deliberate, given the meticulous level of crafting that goes into writing one of the most important speeches of a presidential candidate’s career.
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The nominee’s speech would have been remarkable on its own, but what made it truly outstanding is that it was far from the first appearance of disability at this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC). The convention included disabled people every evening as part of a larger inclusive policy that made 2016 a banner year for disability rights activists, who are used to being invisible. These kinds of appearances normalized disability, presenting it as a part of some people’s lives and a source of pride, not shame or misery.
On Monday, for example, disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza rolled out to give a sharp, compelling speech that didn’t cast disability in a tragic or exceptional light. She wasn’t the only wheelchair user to appear on the DNC stage—Paralympic athlete Mallory Weggemann led the pledge of allegiance on a different evening. Dynah Haubert, an attorney for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, took the stage on Tuesday. Nor were wheelchair users the only disabled people represented. Ryan Moore, a longtime friend of Clinton’s, spoke about health care and his experiences as a man with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenital syndrome, a form of dwarfism. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy talked about his learning disabilities. Musician Demi Lovato, who has bipolar disorder, took on mental health.
Former Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a nondisabled man who played an instrumental role in the push to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, taught the crowd sign language during a lively speech about the fight for disability rights on Tuesday, the 26th anniversary of the landmark legislation.
On Wednesday night, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) strode out onto the DNC stage in Philadelphia, smiling and waving at the crowd, to make a few short remarks. “Speaking is difficult for me,” she concluded, “but come January 2017 I want to say these two words: ‘Madam President.'” Her speech was about gun violence—a subject with which she’s intimately familiar after being shot in the head in 2011.
This level of representation is unprecedented. Some speakers, like Somoza, explicitly talked about disability rights, putting the subject in the spotlight in a way it’s never been at previous conventions. Others, like Giffords, came up on stage to talk about something else entirely—and happened to represent disability while they were at it. Similarly, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a decorated combat veteran and double amputee, talked about military policy.
This is a striking contrast from the treatment of disability at previous Democratic National Conventions: When disabled people have appeared, it’s often been in the form of a lackluster performance that objectifies disability, rather than celebrating it, as in 1996 when former actor Christopher Reeve framed disability as a medical tragedy.
Disability rights activists have spent decades fighting for this kind of representation. In 1992, two years after the passage of the ADA, the platform included just three mentions of disability. This year, the subject comes up in 36 instances, woven throughout the platform for an integrated approach to disability as a part of society, rather than as something that needs to be walled off into a tiny section of the platform, tokenized, and then dismissed.
In the intervening years, disabled people in the United States have fought for the enforcement of the ADA, and taken the right to independent living to court in 1999’s Olmsted v. L.C., which was namechecked in the 2000 platform and then forgotten. Disabled people advocated to have their rights in school codified with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, pushed for inclusion in 2010’s Affordable Care Act, and are fighting to pass the Community Choice Act and Disability Integration Act (DIA). Disability rights in the United States has come a long way since 1990’s infamous Capitol Crawl, in which disability rights activists dragged themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol, pleading with Congress to pass the ADA.
And as activists have pushed for progress in the courts and in Congress, disability rights have slowly become more prominent in the Democratic party platform. The ADA has been a consistent theme, appearing in every platform since 1992 alongside brief references to civil rights; historically, however, the focus has been on disability as a medical issue. The 1996 platform introduced Medicare, and health care in general, as issues important to the disability community, a refrain that was reiterated in years to come. In numerous years, Democrats addressed concerns about long-term care, in some cases positioning disabled people as objects of care rather than independent people. Disabled veterans have also played a recurring role in the platform’s discussion of military issues. But beyond these topics—again, often approached from a dehumanizing angle—and the occasional lip service to concerns about discrimination and equal rights, until the 2000s, education was the only really consistent disability issue.
In 2000, however, the Democrats went big, building on eight years under President Bill Clinton, and the influence of his then-first lady. For the first time, disability wasn’t simply lumped under “civil rights.” The platform explicitly called out the need for protection from disability hate crimes, but it also began to introduce the idea that there were other issues of relevance to the disability with a discussion of the digital divide and the obstacles that held disabled people back. Almost 30 years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which barred disability discrimination by government agencies and contractors, the Democrats were starting to embrace issues like accessibility and independent living, which also played a prominent role in 2000.
And this week, the efforts of a generation of disability rights activists are on display everywhere in Philadelphia, where Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky observed that accessibility is a top priority across the city. The DNC is providing expanded accessible seating, wheelchair charging stations, service dog relief areas, Braille materials, closed captioning, American Sign Language interpreters, medication refrigerators, and more. That’s radical inclusion at work, and the result of incredible efforts by disability rights organizers—including the 400 delegates who disclosed disabilities.
Those same organizers have been hounding the presidential candidates, holding them accountable on disability over and over again. They’ve brought up concerns about independent living, wage disparities, education, access to services, accessibility, hate crimes, reproductive rights, the “marriage penalty” and government benefits, and casual disablism in campaign rhetoric and practices. Advocates leaned on the Clinton campaign until it began captioning its content, for example. RespectAbility sent journalists out on the trail, #CriptheVote organized Twitter, and Rev Up encouraged people to register to vote and get involved. The disability community may be more explicitly politically active this year than ever before, and the DNC has been responding accordingly.
Notably, in a platform that has loudly called for a Hyde Amendment repeal and pushed for other abortion rights, the Democrats have also reinforced the need for access to reproductive health for disabled people, a revolutionary clause that’s gone virtually unnoticed.
This is a platform—and convention—of aggressive inclusion, and it reflects a victory for disabled people in the United States. It does still lack some components the disability community would like to see, like a shoutout to the DIA, which Clinton supports. This is, however, the start of what looks like a robust and real relationship between the Democrats and the disability rights community.
During a May interview with the Texas Observer‘s Alexa Garcia-Ditta, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards didn’t skip a beat when pointing to the likely effect of voting restrictions.
“One of the greatest challenges, absolutely, in the state of Texas is the enormous hurdles that people have to go through to vote, and the fact that in the last election, we were 50th in voter turnout of 50 states,” said Richards. “That’s appalling. When 28 percent of the voters go to the polls, the democratic process isn’t working, it’s completely broken. I believe we have to completely address voting rights in this country, and in Texas.”
Texas is one of 17 states to implement new voting restrictions, such as voter identification laws and reduced early voting, for the first time during the 2016 presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University’s School of Law. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
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“This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote,” explains the Brennan Center’s website. “Overall, 22 states have new restrictions in effect since the 2010 midterm election.”
The Republican-led charge to roll back voting rights has been fairly transparent in its goal of suppressing Democratic votes, specifically targeting voters of color and those living in poverty—a goal only made easier after the Supreme Court gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that safeguarded against these strategies in a 2013 decision.
Efforts to enact voting restrictions have begun to gain steam, increasingly in many of the same places where abortion restrictions are also being passed. And reproductive rights and justice advocates are taking notice. NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2012 noted that efforts to chip away at voting rights effectively silence the ability of many to weigh in on decisions regarding their bodies.
“Americans defend the right to choose by lobbying their elected officials, taking action in their communities, and participating in the public debate, but no single deed is as central to the civic process as the simple act of casting a vote,” Nancy Keenan, then president of NARAL, said in a statement announcing the decision. “That is why recent efforts to restrict citizens’ access to the ballot box are so dangerous. These measures threaten to deny millions of Americans the right to vote, silencing their voices as the nation debates our most cherished freedoms, including the right of every woman to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices.”
Ilyse Hogue, NARAL’s current president, reaffirmed this commitment after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision on the VRA, explaining in a statement that year that the organization believes “that participation in the political process is a constitutional right that empowers Americans to elect leaders who represent their interests in important areas such as reproductive rights.”
When thousands joined the Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina in February 2014 to protest conservative policies such as the state’s restrictive voter suppression laws, Planned Parenthood was among the event’s 150 coalition partners. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Richards explained why it was imperative for her organization to get involved.
“For Planned Parenthood, the ideology behind these measures is all too familiar. They were put in place by politicians who would rather transport us through a time warp where only the privileged few have access to fundamental American rights,” wrote Richards. “Many of those states [passing voting restrictions] are the same ones passing restriction after restriction on women’s access to health care.”
“The history of our country shows that we are better off when everyone has a voice in our political process. We continue to stand with our partners in calling for laws that make it easier—not harder—to vote,” Richards continued.
As the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections brought a wave of voting restrictions, a crush of anti-choice laws similarly swept the country. Since those elections, an unprecedented 288 state-level abortion restrictions have been enacted.
“To put that number in context, states adopted nearly as many abortion restrictions during the last five years (288 enacted 2011-2015) as during the entire previous 15 years (292 enacted 1995-2010),” Guttmacher researchers explained in a recent report outlining the state of reproductive rights in the country.
The pushes for voting and abortion restrictions use similar tactics, slowly eroding the rights of women, people of color, and those with low incomes. “It’s a ‘death by 1000 cuts’ strategy,” Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School, told MSNBC of the two issues in 2014. “For both of these rights, you’re not allowed to ban it. So in each instance you’re just making it harder than it would be otherwise.”
Conservatives have been able to do this by leveraging misinformation about the two issues. Abortion and voting restrictions “both address manufactured problems,” Sondra Goldschein, director of advocacy and policy at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Rewire. “They have thinly veiled excuses for introducing them. Whether it’s unproven voter fraud or concerns about women, the legislation is clearly about taking away rights, particularly in marginalized communities.”
For example, many voting restrictions are implemented based on false claims about the prevalence of voting fraud. In Wisconsin, where as many as 300,000 registered votersstand to be disenfranchised by the state’s restrictive voter ID law, Republican Gov. Scott Walker justified suppressing the vote by citing instances of fraudulent voting. When challenged in court, the state was unable to come up with a single case of voter impersonation.
That is likely because in Wisconsin, like in the rest of the country, voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. Study after study has found little to no evidence to support the claim. An analysis conducted by the Washington Post‘s Justin Levitt in 2014 found just 31 instances of voter fraud in the more than one billion ballots cast between the years 2000 and 2014.
Many abortion restrictions are similarly based on the perpetuation of misinformation, which are often based on conservatives feigning concern for women’s health. Wisconsin provides yet another prime example of this with its 2013 targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law, which required all doctors performing abortions in the state to obtain admitting privileges to hospitals within a 30-mile range, justified by claims of safeguarding women’s health. But when the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law unconstitutional in 2015, Judge Richard Posner, writing for the majority, noted that the medical necessity for such laws is “nonexistent” and the regulations were instead meant to impede abortion access.
“They may do this in the name of protecting the health of women who have abortions, yet as in this case the specific measures they support may do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,” wrote Posner.
Though it’s often clear that legislation to restrict access to the polls and abortion share similar goals and tactics—employing misinformation, attempting to dissuade people from access by making doing so too expensive or burdensome, and so on—in some cases, states are borrowing from the exact same playbooks to make laws to get their way. In Texas, where there is already a strict voter ID law, the state passed another law in 2015 requiring abortion providers to ask for “valid government record of identification” from patients to prove they are 18 before providing care. The process of obtaining a valid form of ID is often difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, especially for those in marginalized communities.
Much like the case for voting restrictions, abortion restrictions help white men maintain the status quo of power across the country. Drawing connections between between voting restrictions and TRAP laws in Texas, then-Rewire reporter Andrea Grimes, who now works for the Texas Observer, noted on the RJ Court Watch podcast that both conservative restrictions help ensure those in power maintain their positions.
“We [in Texas] have some of the strictest TRAP (targeted restrictions on abortion providers) legislation in the country. At the same time we have what one federal judge straight up called racist and unconstitutional voter ID requirements that prevent people from being able to get out to the polls and cast their votes,” said Grimes. “And these two things together kind of ensure that power stays with the powerful. That’s what we’re seeing right now here.”
“[B]oth voting rights and abortion access involve fundamental rights,” added Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire‘s vice president of law and the courts. “In theory, fundamental rights are fundamental. They are things that we all hold but really what we’re talking about is access to power. So when we place restrictions on those rights, we make it harder to exercise them—which makes it harder to effectively engage our civic power.”
When framed as a desperate attempt by the GOP to maintain a hold on their power dynamics, it comes as no surprise that many of the very same states pushing through voting restrictions are also moving to restrict abortion access. During 2015 alone, 57 abortion restrictions were enacted across the country. Of the massive push to restrict abortion since 2010, ten states enacted more than ten restrictions: Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Alabama, and North Carolina.
These lists have remarkable crossover with the states that have enacted new voting restrictions in that same period of time: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The end result for both kinds of restrictions is the same: a massive sweep of nationwide changes chipping away at the fundamental rights of Americans and disproportionately affecting women, communities of color, and those living in poverty.
Those pushing through these laws “are not just focusing on one state, but they are looking at creating change across the whole country, through each individual state-by-state attack on these fundamental freedoms,” explained Goldschein.
Goldschein went on to note that conservatives’ success in pushing these restrictions demonstrates the importance of voting, especially for down-ballot seats in the state legislature where many of these decisions are made. “State legislatures are ground zero in the fight for civil liberties, and they do not always attract as much attention as the debates in Congress or arguments in the Supreme Court, but in fact they are really the source of unprecedented assaults on our most fundamental rights,” she explained.
“This year … 80 percent of our state legislature seats are up for re-election, and we need voters to be paying attention to what is happening in those state legislatures and then to hold politicians accountable and vote as if their liberties depend on it—because they do—because this is where these fights are taking place.”