Why Voting, And The Voting Rights Act, Should Matter To Changemakers

Voting Rights
Source: Voting Rights

On this blog, we seldom wade into the mire of politics. Social entrepreneurship is not a partisan issue. But changemaking—seeking to effect a positive change in a community—is inevitably a political act, influencing the way that individuals in society conduct themselves and interact.

Democracy may be “the worst form of government, except all the other ones,” as Winston Churchill supposedly quipped, but it is the most conducive to changemaking. Citizens in a liberal democratic society, at least in theory, can more readily influence their key decision-makers, express their voice and stake in local decision-making, and manifest their pleasure (or displeasure) with their representative government. The basic civic act of voting in a democracy, then, is clearly a simple but crucial tool for changemaking. Yet in far too many democracies, voting can range between a metaphorical “check-in-the-box” that absolves citizens from engaging meaningfully in the issues and the candidates to an outright charade and mockery of representative government.

On Tuesday, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the central pillar of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, enacted to preserve the American ideal and constitutional right of a fair and free vote for all citizens irrespective of race or any other characteristic. This pillar, fundamentally Sections 4 and 5 of the Act, requires certain states, counties and municipalities with historic, discriminatory restrictions on voter registration to “pre-clear” any changes to their election procedures with the U.S. Justice Department.

When President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks beside him, the law helped win an almost a century-long struggle to honor and enforce the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed practices that disenfranchised African Americans—and later, in subsequent re-authorizations, of other racial minorities. In the history of changemaking in the U.S., the Voting Rights Act is a milestone, guaranteeing through the Justice Department the equal protection of an essential tool for civic participation in our country.

In Shelby, the court’s 5-4 majority argued that the conditions in the U.S. had changed dramatically since 1965, and the formula used to consider “pre-clearance” is no longer valid. That’s certainly true, but for many Americans, especially those with low levels of education and income, the right to a free and uninhibited vote is still hardly guaranteed. On average, African Americans wait 23 minutes at the polls and Hispanics 19 minutes, compared to just 12 minutes for non-Hispanic white Americans.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote on page 5 of her dissent (available here) that today “second-generation barriers” to racial and ethnic discrimination like racial gerrymandering and changing the procedures for local municipal elections could crop up more often and slowly chip away at the ability of minority voters to fully exercise their voice, in the same way that literacy tests (the “first generation”) did before. Just two hours after the ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott Texas enacted that state’s voter ID law that had been ruled by federal courts last year to impose “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.”

If the government won’t facilitate access to a basic democratic right, who will? The citizens themselves, if they seize the opportunity. Changemaking, by its nature, doesn’t come from the top but from the electorate seeking to speak out.

In the United States, social entrepreneurs are looking to bolster democratic participation. Ashoka Fellow Seth Flaxman is making voting easy and responsive to citizens with his initiative, TurboVote. TurboVote is a technology platform that helps register voters by mail and, where permitted, cast their ballots. The program uses SMS and email to remind its users to vote in every upcoming election, even down to school board elections. While they may seem mundane, local elections often yield more important and consequential impact to the day-to-day lives of most Americans.

Ultimately, Flaxman hopes that TurboVote can influence election policy up to the federal level by integrating the platform with local election boards and facilitating the actual balloting. With a program that is as easy to use as Netflix, TurboVote can help ensure that even the most vulnerable segments of the American electorate can still be registered, informed, and given a means to vote.

What about elsewhere? In Mexico, a true multiparty democracy for only 13 years, Ashoka Fellow Jorge Soto’s CitiVox gives a channel for citizens to monitor and respond to their political institutions. Soto began his work in 2009 with an initiative to track Mexican elections, and then he created a social business that shares real-time communications about civic issues through text messages, email and social networking. After collecting this data, it funnels the information to key decision-makers and informs the citizen of the case and the expected response. This two-way communication is public and measurable.

Citivox has helped watchdog groups in Benin and Yemen to monitor election results and ensure transparent vote tallies, and the platform is halfway to being integrated in every state in Brazil. Where the government is unable or unwilling to guarantee elections that are accountable to the public, Citivox provides the tools for the citizens to step in and protect their vote.

A flourishing democracy demands a government to fortify its basic framework and institutions. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote about the role of Congress in protecting the right to vote: “when confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination, and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.” Yet Congress cannot do it alone, and ordinary citizens themselves can have the opportunity to engage in their communities on a basic level and ensure that others can fulfill their civic duty to the greatest extent.

Entrepreneurs like Flaxman and Soto, and their initiatives, are activating electorates to communicate with their government, and eventually see a place in reforming the policy themselves. They’re helping to make this quintessential democratic ideal a reality.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images