A year from now, the election of 2012 will be history. The biggest question on the ballot may be not who wins the contest, however, but whether our democratic system survives.
Wealthy special interests have always held a disproportionate share of power. But in recent years, America’s political system has swung wildly out of balance.
Not only did corporations and the wealthy gain more power through the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows them to spend unlimited sums on political advertising, but also a growing cadre of state lawmakers has been making a coordinated attack on the voting rights of minorities, the elderly, and young people.
No matter how vigorous nonprofits are in their voter-registration efforts this year, little of it may matter as long as such rules are in place. And every other foundation and nonprofit, regardless of its mission, needs to understand and act on the threat to its ability to serve society when the basic premise of democracy in America is at risk.
While many people in the nonprofit world have paid attention to the influence of money and power in elections, perhaps less well understood, but just as important, are the efforts to make it much harder for millions of people to vote.
In dozens of states across the country, legislation has been enacted or is under consideration to greatly restrict the rights of average citizens to cast their votes.
Restrictions already on the books will make it harder for more than five million eligible voters in states that will provide 171 electoral votes—nearly two-thirds of the votes needed to win the presidency, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
In a new report, the center paints an ugly portrait of the rapid decline of American democracy.
One of the most far-reaching changes highlighted in the report is the new requirement for voters to present a piece of government-issued photo identification before they can vote.
The new identification rules, which are in place in five states with nearly 29 million eligible voters, may not seem like a great hardship at first glance.
But the Brennan Center estimates that roughly 3.2 million potential voters do not have state-issued photo ID’s. Many of those people are elderly or disabled who cannot drive or poor people who cannot afford a car.
The Brennan Center report documents a wide variety of other regulations, including laws requiring new proof of citizenship and new restrictions on when it will be possible to vote.
In 2008, nearly 8 million people participated in early-voting procedures, designed to expand access to the polls beyond the traditional voting day.
Under new regulations in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio, early voting will be sharply curtailed.
Virtually all of the new restrictions have been advanced by Republican state legislators, who won more seats in 2010 than they had in any other election since before the Great Depression.
Almost immediately they set out to harvest a bumper crop of new voter-suppression laws when they took over in 2011. And they are not done yet. According to the Brennan Center, dozens of proposals have yet to be acted upon.
Altogether, the rules present new obstacles for an electorate that is already prone to skip the polls.
Even in 2008, an election that attracted the highest share of voters in 40 years, turnout was less than 60 percent of the eligible voting-age population.
The bad economy is likely to depress voter participation even further.
Nonprofits have come under direct threat in their voter-registration drives through the new law.
In Florida, a new election law requires voter-registration groups to file their forms within 48 hours of collecting the documents or face stiff penalties for late filing.
The new rules are so draconian that even the League of Women Voters has stopped its voter-registration efforts.
Nonprofit organizations should not back down, and in fact they should aggressively step up their efforts to register people to vote.
They should decry the attack upon the integrity of nonprofit civic-engagement efforts in the State of Florida. And they should redouble their efforts to support the voting rights of individuals throughout the country.
To get advice, many of them can turn to NonprofitVOTE, an effort that since 2005 has provided training and guidance to thousands of nonprofits to show them how to register clients, employees, volunteers, and others.
Likewise, more foundations should step up and join nonprofits in aggressively defending citizens and democracy.
Too many foundations have steered clear of policy and advocacy efforts that seek to strengthen the practice of democracy.
That should change.
None of the most pressing issues facing society can be resolved if our democracy is broken.
Protecting our elections is everybody’s responsibility.
One of the great ironies of the new push to limit voting rights in the United States is the fact that we have just experienced a decade of wars that have claimed thousands of dead and wounded American military personnel, ostensibly to plant the seeds of democracy in the arid deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In those polling stations, it appears that an ink-stained finger is considered an adequate safeguard of election integrity.
It would be tragic if the same rights were allowed to wither in the United States.