Commentary: Reclaiming our democracy

Commentators on the state of American democracy paint an unhappy picture: absolute paralysis and gridlock in Congress, an era of greatly increased influence of the super rich in political affairs, and a concerted effort to reduce participation among the people, or certain people, in the political process. In short, our democracy is in a shambles.

How have we strayed so far from our noble beginnings? Three villains suggest themselves in this sordid story. The first is the overweening power and influence of big money in our politics. Increasingly, elections and influence in the halls of power are controlled by the super wealthy and their various political action committees. Candidates on both sides of the isle are beholden to big money, and they are influenced in their voting by swarms of lobbyists who descend on Washington, D.C., and on state capitals throughout the country – including Richmond. There are billionaires and PACs supporting both Democrats and Republicans, although the preponderance of this big money is controlled by right wing groups. In Virginia, Dominion Power cheerfully tosses money to both Democrats and Republicans, and their investment bears fruit in recent legislation to exempt this public utility from legislative oversight for seven years.

Secondly, the practice of gerrymandering, of redrawing political districts to maximize influence and control of one or other party, has made a mockery of the one-person one-vote concept. Both parties have used this practice to their advantage. Of late, however, Republicans have used gerrymandering primarily to guarantee re-election of right wing politicians and thwart the influence of minority voting. Resistance to this practice is growing. Around the country at least 87 bills against gerrymandering are pending. In Virginia 11 lawsuits against the practice have been filed. The only way this practice will end is by taking away the authority to redraw districts after each national census from politicized state legislatures and vest it with non-partisan neutral commissions. This has been done in Arizona and California, while at least 13 other states have advanced similar plans.

Finally, anti-democratic forces have coalesced around advancement of a variety of voter suppression laws. These various measures include elimination of Sunday and early voting, limiting poll hours and the limited use of absentee ballots. They also include so-called “Voter ID laws” that require particular forms of photo identification at the polls as a measure supposedly to prevent fraud. Meanwhile, in reality the instances of documented voter fraud is so miniscule as to be virtually non-existent, while millions of voters have effectively been prevented from voting by voter suppression efforts. This is clearly a throwback to the Jim Crow era; these laws overwhelmingly impact minority voters. They also exclude large groups of students and the elderly. The solution to promoting maximum participation of the electorate (presumably the goal in a democracy) is simple: roll back voter ID laws, allow same day registration, allow for Sunday and early voting, increase use of absentee ballots, particular for the elderly; and increase access to polling places while reducing waiting times.

As we look to the upcoming election on Tuesday, voters in the 26th District are offered a clear choice. The incumbent, Mark Obenshain, has for 12 years in Richmond been immersed in the increasing power of big money. In contrast his opponent, April Moore, has as the centerpiece of her campaign a pledge to fight big money in politics through increased oversight, accountability, emphasis on ethical reform, and support of efforts to move toward public funding of elections. Obenshain is a member of the party that gerrymandered Virginia’s districts after the 2010 census. Moore is supportive of the current lawsuits and committed to ending gerrymandering everywhere in Virginia – and placing authority to redraw districts in the hands of a non-partisan commission. Mr. Obenshain was a co-sponsor of Virginia’s current voter ID law. Ms. Moore is committed to repeal of this law, and to any measure that will make possible increased rather than decreased voter participation. Consider these differences as you go to the polls on Tuesday.

Throughout the country, millions of citizens are rising up to combat the effects of big money in politics, the anti-democratic results of gerrymandering, and the exclusion of millions of voters through voter suppression laws. We can join them here in Virginia’s District 26. It’s time to begin reclaiming our democracy.

Dr. Keck is a retired United States Air Force historian living at Bryce Resort.