Americans and Montanans are proud that our form of government is a democracy — the oldest continually functioning democratic constitutional governmental structure in the world, based upon free elections.
And those free elections are something we hold up as a model for the rest of the world to emulate.
In fact, “democracy” actually means power being exercised by the people, and in our case that power is principally through voting. Anything that constrains the right or ability of all of the people to vote actually is a weakening of our democracy.
That’s what makes the current political effort at voter suppression such an obvious affront to the very nature of our democratic republic and our American system of values.
For more than 200 years, the U.S. consistently broadened the ability of its citizens to vote. But in recent years, in dozens of states, serious voter suppression efforts are being advanced for purely partisan political reasons.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “new voting restrictions developed since 2010 are slated to be in place in 22 states this November. In 15 of these states, 2014 will be the first federal election with new restrictions in effect.” As it currently stands, “eligible voters in nearly half the country could find it harder to cast a ballot in the 2014 midterm elections.”
Whether it is very difficult photo identification requirements or restrictions on early voting or voter registration restrictions, this effort is distasteful. It pains me to have to say that it is primarily the product of one political party. But that is the sad fact. The targets for reduced voting are primarily voter groups (blacks, Hispanics, and young people) who are likely to vote against the political preferences of the Republican Party. The Legislatures enacting the changes are all Republican. The changes are being advanced in an effort to solve a fabricated problem — voter fraud — that is publicly advanced by the Republican Party despite the lack of any evidence that such voter fraud exists.
When a state stops Sunday voting while one of the major traditions of black voting is the busing of people from black churches to the polling place on the Sunday before election, no wonder black voters see themselves as the targets of voter suppression.
When a state says a photo ID from a public university is not sufficient for a student to use at the polling place while a license to carry a concealed handgun is acceptable, no wonder students feel they are being stepped on for political purposes.
When a Hispanic area with an increasing number of new voters has the number of polling places reduced and the number of polling machines reduced even more, making it harder and more time consuming to vote, no wonder the Hispanic thinks someone doesn’t want him or her to vote at all.
When same-day voter registration and voting is being cut back, as pushed in Montana by the Republican Legislature, and evidence shows that the majority of late registrants do not vote the Republican way, no wonder many Montanans think someone is trying to stop them from voting because of where they stand philosophically.
The vote of the people is the bedrock of our democracy. Making it easy for more people to vote is the obvious way to strengthen that democracy.
So when a political party’s ideas and policies cannot command the support of the electorate, or when a political party feels the demographic changes in the emerging new electorate work against them winning elections, that political party needs to change its approach to be able to attract the votes of the people.
But democracy itself becomes a casualty when that political party instead tries to find ways to stop from voting those people who might disagree with them.
It is time for the Republican Party to look into the mirror, examine its soul, consider its commitment to the principles of our democracy, and stop all these voter suppression tactics that put politics above policy … partisanship above principle.
Evan Barrett, of Butte, has spent the last 45 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics and education. He is the director of business and community outreach and an instructor at Highlands College of Montana Tech. These are his personal views.