How Conservatives Are Attacking Democracy

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"Give us the ballot!"

Martin Luther King Jr.'s words still resonate with many of us today. From the marches and protests in Selma, Ala., to the hundreds of voting-rights lawsuits to the on-the-ground slogan "One Man, One Vote," the road to equal voting rights has not been easy, particularly for communities of color.


This year conservatives have attempted to rewind the clock by stripping certain groups of their political power, and unfortunately, they have been successful in many places. In Michigan, a conservative-backed law that threatens to rob poor people of color of their democratic voice was passed without the attention it deserved. Under the pretext of fiscal accountability, the Michigan Legislature authorized the use of emergency managers who threaten the very fabric of our democracy: participation. 

So far, emergency managers appointed by the Michigan governor have closed 75 percent of traditional public schools in Detroit, suspended the power of the mayors and city councils in Pontiac and Benton Harbor without any say by community members, and privatized emergency services in Ecorse. In Detroit, because the Detroit Public Schools' emergency manager has the power to revoke public contracts and award them to anyone, the district has reneged on union contracts, and teachers are now being asked to pay a percentage of their health benefits and take a pay cut.

These managers have sweeping powers to take over a city or school district and sell its public assets (including land and buildings); revoke public contracts; suspend the power of locally elected officials; and dissolve cities, towns and school districts altogether. These decisions can be made with little to no supervision, oversight or accountability and without input from citizens. Essentially these managers can act as "dictators" over fiscally strapped communities of color.

While many jurisdictions in Michigan are in fiscal crisis and therefore are eligible for emergency managers, almost all of the communities where they have been appointed are predominantly black. In these black communities, public schools are being shuttered, public jobs are being privatized, mayors and city council members are being unseated and silenced, and deficits, in some cases, are actually increasing.

Black communities are the "guinea pigs" for ending democracy as we know it. And recently, the state took steps to put another black city, Flint, and another black school district, Highland Park, on the track toward emergency management.

This attack on people of color comes amid many other efforts from conservatives to stifle the democratic rights of Americans, and especially people of color. This year, conservatives passed voter-suppression laws that limit early voting, end Election Day registration and strip people with felony convictions of their voting rights even after they paid their debt to society.


The most pernicious of these efforts has been the passage of laws that limit voter identification to state-issued photo identification, which threatens to affect millions of already registered voters. These rollbacks to voting rights cannot be divorced from right-wing efforts to strip workers of collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin and other states that were an integral part of the Michigan law authorizing emergency managers.

These laws are part of the largest legislative effort in more than a century to scale back basic democratic rights. The encouraging news is that citizens have been successful in beating this effort back. A diligent effort by progressive forces in several states compelled governors to veto photo-ID restriction laws in Montana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and New Hampshire. Civil rights groups are urging the U.S. Department of Justice to deny approval of these laws in South Carolina and Texas under the Voting Rights Act. 


Advancement Project and its partners are challenging Missouri's proposed photo-ID constitutional amendment in court. Of course, attacks on collective bargaining are being aggressively fought by labor unions in several states. And in Michigan, a statewide coalition of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Michigan Forward; and other groups is gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures to force a recall of the emergency-manager law. The inextricable links between these attacks on democracy require a unified effort to protect our rights.

Throughout history, Americans, and particularly people of color, have courageously fought back against efforts to deny democracy to all. We succeeded in eliminating literacy tests, poll taxes and Jim Crow. By marching tirelessly forward to secure democratic rights for all, we strengthened the very fabric of America's promise. We must redouble those efforts now, connect our struggles and not waver until we can truly say that all Americans have an equal voice in shaping their destiny and their democracy.


Judith Browne Dianis is one of the nation's leading voting-rights litigators and co-director of the Advancement Project, a next-generation civil rights organization focused on issues of democracy and race.