Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Protect Your Right to Vote

Protect Your Right to Vote

by Ted Miller
(originally published October 2017 in Tumbleweird)

As a democracy, we should want the voices of all citizens to be heard at the ballot box. Voting should be easy, accurate, and trusted. One citizen, one vote. It shouldn’t matter where you live, how much money you have, your religious belief, the color of your skin, the language you speak, or your political affiliation.

And yet throughout the history of this country, those in power have attempted to suppress the vote of those who would threaten their hold on that power. Suppressing the black vote has been particularly egregious since the post-Civil War passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution which states “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Poll taxes, onerous literacy or citizenship tests, and outright intimidation were used to deny blacks the right to vote. The civil rights movement of the 1960s led to laws that helped improve equality for all Americans, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed many of the mechanisms that state and local governments had used to disenfranchise racial minorities.

Fifty years later, efforts to restrict voting rights continue. In 2013, shortly after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the Republican controlled North Carolina legislature enacted a bill with a host of provisions that specifically targeted African Americans, clearly aimed at suppressing their votes. The courts have since struck down much of that law, but the battle for voting rights is far from over. Similar efforts are happening in more than a dozen other states, the worst being Wisconsin and Florida. Restrictive voter ID requirements, fewer polling locations in areas with minority voters, and limitations on early voting all make it more difficult for targeted voters to exercise their right to vote.

Why is this happening? Because those in power do everything they can to stay in power. If you work to deny every citizen an equal voice, if you feel you have to suppress the vote of those who might vote against you, you don’t deserve to remain in power. Our political process has become so partisan that one party uses every means they can to maintain their dominance in government. That, to me, is un-American.

Voter suppression is counter to the idea that we are all equal, that our government is one that represents ALL citizens. If you are so afraid of a fair and open vote that you feel you have to change the rules to stay in power, you don’t believe in “one citizen, one vote.”

Election fraud is frequently cited as a reason for voting restrictions, but study after study shows that actual cases of fraud are almost non-existent, and usually the result of unintentional errors by voters or election officials. Our national system of decentralized voting, with state and local non-partisan oversight, makes it nearly impossible for widespread election fraud to occur. Rigging an election just doesn’t happen in the United States. Audits of the most recent elections in Washington State showed once again that incidences of questionable or invalid voting are exceedingly rare.

Confidence in the voting process is essential to a functioning democracy. Claiming widespread voter fraud without evidence undermines the public trust in the election process. It leads to cynicism and a feeling that one’s vote doesn’t matter.

In Washington, we are fortunate that our voting process is relatively easy and less susceptible to voter suppression. Registering is simple, voting by mail gives us all the ability to cast an informed vote without the time restrictions of going to a polling place on Election Day, and there are no restrictive voter ID requirements that make it more difficult for some to exercise their right.

As I said in my first Tumbleweird column (November 2016), everyone who is eligible to vote should do so. Don’t give up your right. If you believe in making your community and your country a better place for the future, if you believe in equality, and if you want your government to represent you as it works for all of us, vote.

Voter turnout continues to be abysmal, particularly in a year without a presidential election. With the ease of voting in Washington, there is no excuse for failing to vote. Local elections have the biggest impact on your daily life and directly influence state and national priorities. Don’t let apathy or cynicism suppress your vote.

Statistics show that older, white voters have a higher turnout rate than any other demographic. And yet younger, poorer voters are more adversely affected by policies that favor corporations and the wealthy.

Protect your right. Study the candidates and the issues. Then, exercise your right as a citizen.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Is Hate Speech Free Speech?

Is Hate Speech Free Speech?

by Ted Miller
(originally published September 2017 in Tumbleweird)

It was advertised as a Free Speech Rally. They arrived with assault weapons, tear gas, knives, and torches. Were the Charlottesville white supremacists really just protecting their first amendment rights? Or were they spreading hatred and inciting violence? When one of them used his vehicle as a weapon of terror, plowing into a crowd of peaceful counter protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more, was that an expression of protected free speech? Of course not.

The white supremacists, sure in the superiority of their western European race, brandishing swastikas and confederate flags, are a hateful, divisive group. That they want to resurrect the purist, Aryan Nazi fascists that we defeated in war seventy years ago angers me. It should have no place in the country I swore my allegiance to.

But do we have the right to silence them? Should hate speech be protected? Does the first amendment allow us to sow hatred? Should we allow un-American, divisive speech? Who decides?

When the Westboro Baptist Church protests military funerals with their “God Hates Fags” signs, it is disgusting hate speech, but it is protected speech. Football fans may object to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem, ironically claiming his actions are an insult to the veterans who died for his right to protest, but his protests are constitutional. Even burning the flag is considered a first amendment right.

Speech that we find offensive, distasteful, or abhorrent is still protected speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that right time and again, most recently in Matal v. Tam this June. Justice Alito wrote that “speech expressing ideas that offend … strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”

But not all speech is protected. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theatre and cause panic. The Supreme Court decided that in Schenk v. United States in 1919.

Similarly, inciting violence is not protected speech. And that’s what the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members were doing in Charlottesville. Violence is not speech. And when a group of men full of hatred gather in the public square, armed for combat, shouting hateful rhetoric against anyone who is not a straight, white, Christian male, taunting everyone who disagrees with them, and inciting one of their own to murder in the name of their cause, they must be held accountable.

But how? Should we just “punch a Nazi,” responding to violence with more violence? Do we become like those we oppose? No. We use our voices and the law. We use the same first amendment rights that allows them to spew their hatred.

Violence should never be the response to violence or intimidation. Political violence only leads to more violence, never to justice and peace. We who believe in fairness and equality, who believe that those principles embodied in the constitution apply to all, must use our voices, our actions, and the law to counter hate. Our right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly gives us the tools we need. Counter-protests are important, but they must be peaceful. Those who commit violence in the name of hate must be held accountable through our legal system, not through vigilantism or mob justice.

A week after the violence in Charlottesville, white supremacists gathered in Boston for another so-called Free Speech Rally. This time, however, the much smaller group of white supremacists showed up were met by more than 40,000 people who were there to peacefully counter their message of hate. There were no injuries and no property damage. This is the power of the message of peace and love. The response to the previous week’s violence was public outrage, consequences for the hatemongers (who lost jobs and friends), and a suppression of hate speech through peaceful counter-protests.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, 1967 

So, let us continue to speak out forcefully against hate. Let us continue to peacefully assemble with counter-protests. Let us block the Westboro hate with angel shields, overwhelm the white supremacists with counter-protests of love and peace, and show through our words and actions equality and fairness for all. When we live the principles of our constitution, when we use our first amendment rights to speak the truth, and when we use the law to hold accountable those who cross a line into violence, we uphold the constitution and make the world a better place.