Posted by Ryan Suto on November 14, 2018 in Blog
During this election season, much attention fell on campaign bigotry and political and hate-inspired violence across the country. But after (most) votes were counted last week, the country began to celebrate the historic winners, which included a long list of inspiring Arab Americans. But more than the names on the ballot was democracy itself, and it overwhelmingly prevailed in the form of important ballot measures in states across the country.
For the first time, AAI endorsed some of those ballot measures—two in Michigan and one in Florida, all of which passed. In Michigan, Proposal #2 reforms the redistricting process by amending the state’s constitution to implement a nonpartisan redistricting committee, and Proposal #3 ushers in a host of ballot access reforms like automatic voter registration. In Florida, Amendment #4 restores the right to vote to 1.4 million ex-felons who have completed their sentences. These initiatives are important franchise-expanding and franchise-protecting efforts which will benefit all citizens of each respective state, including the many Arab Americans who call Michigan and Florida home. But there were other initiatives aimed at protecting the vote: Utah, Missouri, and Colorado voters passed redistricting reforms to end gerrymandering, while Nevada enacted automatic voter registration. In Maryland, voters implemented statewide same-day voter registration by approving their ballot measure. And campaign finance measures were on ballots in municipalities around the country.
These results have breathed new life in the area of democracy protection. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 gutted the Voting Rights Act, voting rights advocates have been losing ground in both the federal and state courts alike. This pattern is highlighted by this spring’s damaging Supreme Court term, which produced decisions that will make the electoral process more hostile to minority voters and to those currently out of power. But if ballot initiatives can bypass legislatures altogether to reform the voting process in states as diverse as Michigan, Utah, Florida, and Maryland, advocates can replicate their work in other states to protect voting rights by appealing to voters directly.
The strategy is not without risks. In North Carolina, Arkansas, and North Dakota, voters approved voter identification requirements in elections, which disproportionately exclude poor and minority voters from our most basic form civic engagement. Further, there is a lot of work left to be done on gerrymandering: this year in three states—Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina—a majority of voters cast ballots to send Democrats to the House of Representatives, but the state will be represented by a majority of Republicans in that body.
But risks and hard work aside, ballot measures in 2018 did more to protect voting rights than Congress has since it last renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006. As such, voting rights advocates should be eyeing state ballot initiatives in 2020 as an opportunity to further protect and expand the most basic right and obligation in any democracy.