Reader’s Forum — Jessie Fields

Dr. Jessie Fields on Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to SAVE DEMOCRACY by David Daley

Dr. Jessie Fields

Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to SAVE DEMOCRACY by David Daley is an inspiring book that reports on the new activism by ordinary citizens working outside of traditional structures, people of all ages and races, including many women leaders determined to make government of, by and for the people a reality. The author set out during the summer and fall of election year of 2018 to join these quiet revolutionaries who were reinvigorating our civic fabric at the very time it was most needed. These quiet revolutionaries, as he calls them, were taking on barriers that stretch back decades.

In the first chapter of the book, Daley details the past and ongoing systematic disenfranchisement of blacks in southern states such as Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. He writes of the framers of the Alabama’s 1901 state constitution. John Knox, presiding attorney at the state constitutional convention, announced that the convention’s goal was, “within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in the State.” Delegates implemented pool taxes, literacy tests, and labelled minor crimes as acts of moral turpitude for which blacks could be permanently deleted from the voting rolls. Almost a century later, those laws continued to function against people of color.

In 2017, the Alabama legislature finally reinstated voting rights that were unfairly denied to tens of thousands of citizens released from prison, but refused to allocate a dime to actually register them. Daley spent time with Blair Bowie, a young attorney who launched the Alabama Voting Rights Project to inform people of the change in the law and help them to register and regain their right to vote. Daley asks Bowie why she does this work, registering only about a dozen people after long hours of door-knocking. She replies,

Those people would not have known all their rights had we not been there. That’s just a fact. Maybe twelve votes isn’t going to swing an election, but that’s not what matters. There’s inherent value in helping each person and helping them through something they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

In Florida, Daley observed Desmond Meade, president and founder of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and his team train hundreds of formerly incarcerated people as activists for the vote. This determined effort included a volunteer grassroots petition drive that collected 799,000 signatures statewide for the 2018 ballot initiative which ultimately passed with close to 65 percent of the vote to restore voter eligibility to 1.4 million formerly incarcerated citizens.

In the Voters Not Politicians campaign, led by Katie Fahey with 4,000 volunteers who collected more than 400,000 signatures, ordinary citizens fully participated in creating the process to establish an independent redistricting commission. Daley joined the Voters Not Politicians canvassers as they knocked on tens of thousands of doors across Michigan.

In San Juan, Utah and the hardscrabble tribal lands of North Dakota, he watched Native Americans organize desperate, heroic efforts to preserve their voice against surgically focused voter ID bills, intricate precinct closures and gerrymandered chicanery.

In July 2018, Daley spent several days with the three Millennial first-time activists who spearheaded the Medicaid for All campaign in Idaho, riding across Idaho in a rickety bright green RV, the Medicaid Express. The campaign succeeded in the passage of Medicaid for All initiatives in Idaho, Utah and Nebraska.

These campaigns were not lead by politicians or parties. Grounded around issues of fairness, these efforts brought people together across party lines, across racial lines, and across geographic lines. It seems to me that the fact that these campaigns were non-ideological was key to their ability to bring diverse citizens together.

Such efforts are continuing. One current example is the Let All Voters Vote campaign in Florida which is set to have an initiative on the ballot in Florida in the November 2020 election. Let All Voters Vote ballot question 3 gives every voter, including those who are not registered in a party, the right to vote in all elections. The campaign, led by a diverse coalition of reform activists and independent leaders such as Steve Hough of Florida Fair and Open Primaries and voting rights attorney Glenn Burhans, collected over a million signatures to put the measure on the ballot. Despite opposition from the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the attorney general of Florida, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the measure constitutional and certified it for the November 2020 ballot. The initiative concretizes the goal that all voters have equal voting rights.

I believe that political parties should not control the electoral process. The erosive bias of party control is pervasive at all levels of American politics. It is stark in gerrymandering in which the politicians pick their voters. The chapter Mathematicians Enlist for Duty in the book is fascinating. It speaks of the possibility, when voters are included in the conversation about districting, when the technology is democratized, when the work of partisans can be checked by nonpartisan mathematicians, the playing field begins to even. Redistricting need not take place in the shadows, or be left in the hands of well-funded partisans armed with big data and the most sophisticated software.

Let me end with this important caveat. A danger of redistricting plans that seek partisan balance is to further entrench party control to ameliorate extreme partisan gerrymandering. It seems to me that the goal of electoral reform is to empower the voters not to achieve partisan balance. Partisan balance excludes those who choose, as over 40 percent of American voters do, to be independent of the two parties. The next frontier in the fight to rebuild American democracy is the full inclusion of all voters, including those who reject party control altogether.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practicing in Harlem, and a Board member at Independent Voting and Open Primaries.

Politics for the People Zoom Call

with Author David Daley

Sunday, May 31st


Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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