Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. (Courtesy Photo)
By Ben Jealous
The 2020 elections taught us that our democracy is both strong and fragile. This is the time to shore it up with the For the People Act that is now waiting for action by Congress.
Voters showed the strength of our democracy by showing up in record numbers to cast ballots to defeat an incumbent president. And voters in Georgia, led by Black voters, made history by electing a progressive Black preacher and Jewish filmmaker to the U.S. Senate.
What makes our democracy strong is that people spent years organizing and building the capacity to educate and motivate voters.
We also saw that our democracy is fragile. A president who did not want to give up his power spent weeks enraging his supporters with lies about the election. He tried to bully state officials to manufacture enough votes to overturn the election. He pressured members of Congress and his own vice president to trash the Constitution. And he urged his supporters to come to Washington and fight to keep him in power. We all saw how that turned out—with a noose on the Capitol lawn, Confederate flags in the rotunda, and members of Congress and their staff hiding in fear for their lives.
The impeachment trial also showed both our strength and fragility. The House of Representatives voted to impeach the president for inciting an insurrection, and a clear bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate voted to convict him. But most Republican senators refused to defend democracy and hold Trump accountable for threatening it – and that will encourage extremists to turn to violence again.
And now we see Republican state legislators trying to make it harder for people to register and vote. Already this year, they have introduced more than 100 bills to restrict voting.
That’s why we need to take the same kind of energy that we put into the elections and turn it toward getting the House and Senate to pass the For the People Act.
The first part of the For the People Act is a version of the Voter Empowerment Act that the late Rep. John Lewis championed for the last 10 years. It would encourage online and same-day registration—and preregistration for youth who will reach voting age by Election Day. It would encourage trust in the election process with paper ballots and recounts.
Other parts of the For the People Act would restrict the power of big money in politics. And it would take on the kind of cynical partisan redistricting that state-level Republicans have used to give themselves far more power in state legislatures and in Congress than they deserve based on their share of the vote.
Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and big money are all tools being used by right-wing leaders who fear the inclusive multiracial and multiethnic democracy we are building. They are willing to weaken democracy if it will maintain their ability to hang onto power even though they are a shrinking minority.
We must not let them. Erecting barriers to try to keep Black people from voting is an ugly part of our past that we must make sure is not part of our future.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.