Framed as a battle to save democracy, the 2020 election and its aftermath only exposed the vulnerabilities within the U.S. political system. While millions of voters overcame the “big lie” at the national level, the focus on federal elections has overshadowed the ongoing struggle at the state level to protect democracy.
Republicans responded to historic turnout by introducing a wave of legislation restricting voting rights in states across the country. Repeatedly debunked lies about fraud and election administration continue to fuel the proposed changes to a manufactured problem.
In Georgia, where a multiracial coalition sent shock waves through the political world, Republicans introduced several dozen bills aimed at limiting the turnout seen in the general and runoff elections. Advocates have recently honed in on two bills, calling them the worst voting legislation since the Jim Crow era. Georgia Senate Bill 241 would end no-excuse absentee ballots and add witnessing and ID requirements for those using absentee ballots.
Early Monday morning, concerned citizens gathered to protest the passage of Georgia House Bill 531, a far-reaching bill being pushed through the state house under the pretense of improving election integrity and security. The bill would do the opposite by limiting availability of absentee ballot drop boxes, limiting early and weekend voting, and shortening the length of period for runoff elections and absentee ballot deadlines. The bill would also prohibit a practice commonly known as “line warming,” which can include providing people in the vicinity of a polling location with snacks, water or even an umbrella. The bill passed the house 97-72.
But protecting democracy is more than beating political opponents at the federal level. Safeguarding our rights, which are constantly under attack at the state level, requires the same level of engagement (if not more) than that given to presidential and other federal elections. The current attack on voting rights and election administration runs parallel to efforts to undermine progress on critical issues, such as reproductive rights and criminal legal system reforms.
“When we think about democracy, we think about everyone being able to participate in government,” said Ohio State Rep. Erica Crawley in an interview with Truthout. “And be able to participate in how they are governed and who is representing their interests, whether it’s at the local, state or federal level.”
Crawley, who represents Ohio’s 26th legislative district, sees the current round of legislative attacks on voting rights as having broader repercussions. “We can’t talk about democracy without talking about voter suppression, without talking about gerrymandering, without talking about how it impacts reproductive health and health care,” Crawley said.
Despite the Republican supermajority in the Ohio legislature, Crawley says it is her duty to continue to make sure her constituents are aware of the many fights always in motion. Regarding reproductive health care, Crawley said she specifically pushes for reproductive justice.
“It’s not just whether someone has the ability to choose whether to have children or not to have children, but it also takes them to account those social determinants of health that have continued to be barriers for communities of color,” Crawley explained. She also raised the need for continuing to push legislation protecting and advancing Medicaid, Medicare and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Crawley sees Ohio Senate Bill 17 as one example of the threats to communities in need. Allegedly to address fraud, advocates say the bill could cost over 100,000 families needed food benefits.
“We know those things are fundamental to taking care of a family and moving up the economic mobility ladder,” said Crawley.
Crawley is not alone in her efforts. As a member of the State Innovation Exchange’s Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, Crawley is one of over 400 legislators across the country who champion reproductive rights and reproductive justice. Coined in 1994, reproductive justice is defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
And like Crawley, many of her counterparts see the parallels between safeguarding the right to vote and reproductive health rights and justice.
“Voting rights doesn’t stand on its own, and reproductive health rights and justice isn’t on [their] own,” Jennifer Driver told Truthout. Driver serves as the senior director for reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange. “These two things are actually linked and really do impact one another.”
Driver said that people often forget about the power of state policymakers. “Policy is localizing,” Driver said. “All policies really do happen at the local level.” Driver recognized the work of state and local grassroots organizations, but noted the need to support progressive legislators in terms of partnerships, coalition-building and policy education.
Driver also said that part of the challenge is helping voters understand there is more to reproductive rights than abortion, but without stigmatizing the word “abortion.”
While some have moved to seeing these issues as intersecting concerns, Driver said people need to move away from siloed approaches to work. In conversation with Truthout, Allison Coffman named the Amplify-GA campaign as an example of how people are seeing the intersecting lanes of elections, voting rights, and reproductive health and justice.
“Although Amplify’s work doesn’t focus on elections, we know that in order to achieve reproductive justice, everyone must be able to freely cast their votes and have a say in the leadership of policymaking that affects us,” said Coffman, the director of Amplify-GA.
Coffman described Amplify-GA as a “collaborative space for reproductive health rights and justice organizations and allies, working to expand abortion access in Georgia, and to advance reproductive justice more broadly.” Amplify-GA member organizations include Access Reproductive Care Southeast, Feminist Women’s Health Center, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, New Georgia Project, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, SPARK Reproductive Justice Now, and URGE: Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity.
“Rights do not guarantee access,” Coffman explained. “And the same groups that are being impacted by the voting restrictions are being impacted by restrictions around reproductive justice, and specifically abortion access.” Historically marginalized groups like Black, Brown, Indigenous and LGBTQ folks, as well as young people and immigrants are the same groups that are being targeted by both attacks, according to Coffman.
Georgia State Rep. Park Cannon agreed with Coffman’s assessment. “No one should face a mandate on the health and strength of their body,” Cannon told Truthout. She called on her legislative colleagues to continue building with their respective constituents and broader communities to bring about a future of peace and grace.
“This pandemic has shown us the importance of personal decision making and autonomy,” Cannon said. “Georgia needs to do a better job with caring for the health of its people. We have not expanded Medicaid, which is why I’ve signed a piece of legislation to expand Medicaid in the state of Georgia.” She pointed to the expansion of Medicaid for new mothers postpartum as a step in the right direction.
By now it should be clear that decades of political appeasement have not worked. The fundamentals of democracy purportedly are about freedom and access to the things people need for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“The same lobbying firms, nonprofits and religious associations are attacking critical rights, and are doing it without regard for the impact on Black and Brown Georgians,” said Cannon.