voice for democracy

Democrats, step up or keep losing – Albany Times Union

Photo illustration by Jeff Boyer / Times Union
Every election cycle, I usually stay glued to the returns, often at a bar watching the results with other politically minded organizers, or at a campaign victory party. Having worked in voting rights and democracy building, in particular for communities of color, elections have been a source of stress recently. Democracy in America has taken some hits.
After years of work, we finally had the chance to amend our state constitution and fix our restrictive voting laws and redistricting process. Surely New York state and the Democratic Party would lead the way and make our state a beacon when strengthening our democracy is literally on the ballot, right?
I had my head in my hands at the bar once again as I watched the crushing returns roll in as the ballot proposals lost by embarrassing margins.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Ballot proposal #1 focused on changes to the state’s redistricting process and ensured that prisons could not count inmates in the process; proposal #3 would have cleared a path for same day voter registration; and proposal #4 would have made absentee voting easier for everyone.
Any changes to the state’s constitution ultimately require voter approval after legislation passes two consecutive legislative sessions. While I think that’s a good thing, it means big structural change can take time, and now we are back to zero.
If you didn’t know about these reforms that were on the ballot, I don’t blame you.
Advocates knew this was the final battle, yet the state Democratic Party, leadership and all, was missing in action. A few local candidates tried to push social media posts in the last few days, but it was too little, too late. What’s worse, these reforms are commonplace in other states, and we will now have to wait years for change.
Democrats have proven to be more interested in maintaining power and propping up the ruling class than actually following through with base building, bringing power to working people, and opening our democracy. Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric, and a long historical strategy of keeping more marginalized and working class communities away from the polls, have combined to form a brutally effective working strategy to help tip elections.
So, while the New York Republican and Conservative parties and a small number of organizers pushed a very vocal and well-resourced “Vote no” campaign, the cavalry to fight for “yes” votes was nowhere to be found. The right had TV ads, mailers and signs all over the state saying “Vote no!” While local races took the limelight and Democrats were more interested in intra-party warfare, the final step in enshrining important pro-democracy reforms got left to the wind.
Republicans can rile people up and bring folks to the polls in large numbers to attack teaching actual history in schools and imposing mask mandates. Democrats have to step up with a message — not just a message of why people should vote for them, but why they should be voting at all.
Instead, we have a Democratic Party at the state level that cares more about courting Republicans to stop a socialist mayoral candidate in Buffalo than making it easier to vote.
Instead, state legislators are more concerned with drawing their own political districts rather than supporting working class voters who have struggled to get to the polls due to onerous state laws.
New York state Democrats deserve the lion’s share of the blame, but national organizing nonprofits in D.C. must acknowledge their role in this setback. When groups hoover up money and choose to not invest in the long-term and deeply necessary pro-democracy organizing in states — in particular in communities of color where organizers are not only working incredibly hard but fighting to live — we all lose.
We don’t just weaken democracy for the whole country when things like this happen, we make it easy to lose elections, like we just did. We are cruising to another potential step backward in the cause of bringing more people into our democracy, at a time when it is the weakest it’s been for a long time.
If Democrats want to claim to be a party of the people, they have to create a state where the people are organized and and the electorate is engaged. Until they prioritize this work, they can expect to have more people with their head in their hands on Election Day watching the returns.
Brandon West, of Brooklyn, is a community organizer, and former voting rights advocate.