Calling efforts by President Donald Trump and his allies to suppress voting rights “a betrayal of American democracy,” AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus urged AFT members to take vigorous action to “protect our most sacred institution—our right to vote.”
DeJesus said members should think about just how important voting is to a free and open political system. “In a true democracy,” she said, “we make it easier to vote, not harder. In the AFT, we encourage voting—we don’t stifle it. Our country’s future depends on it.”
Just after former Vice President—and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—Joe Biden announced Sen. Kamala Harris as his pick for vice president, DeJesus presided over a telephone town hall with AFT members across the nation to discuss voting rights, voter registration and voter turnout.
Special guests during the Aug. 11 event were Jamal Watkins, vice president of civic engagement at the NAACP; Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director and CEO of Mi Familia Vota; and Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote.
Shortly before the telephone town hall began, AFT President Randi Weingarten issued a statement praising Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate. The AFT’s national convention delegates overwhelmingly endorsed Biden for president two weeks ago during the union’s first-ever biennial convention conducted virtually because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Like Biden, Harris has built a career on standing up for the backbone of this country—the truly essential people,” Weingarten said in her statement. “From standing up to big banks, to facing down the gun lobby, to fighting for the LGBTQ community, to rallying for justice in policing, Harris knows where she stands and she isn’t afraid to fight for it.”
Likewise, during the town hall DeJesus noted that the California senator has stood with the AFT and other unions, including striking educators during last year’s strike in Los Angeles. “Harris supports the rights of workers, has stood unequivocally with striking teachers and school staff, and supports strengthening voting rights,” DeJesus said.
Watkins, who leads the NAACP’s efforts to maximize African American participation and representation in the political process, told town hall participants “all roads lead to November. If we vote like our lives depend on it, we can make America what it ought to be.”
Sanchez Barba is a longtime leader in advancing civic participation and fighting injustices against the most vulnerable communities, including Latinos and immigrants. This year, he said, those efforts include targeting some 3.3 million Latino voters with millions of calls and text messages, as well as person-to-person contacts with at least 1 million of them.
The biggest concern among these potential voters, he said, is the “horrible response from the Trump administration to the coronavirus crisis.”
DeWitt noted that Rock the Vote this year is marking 30 years of building the power of young people through voter registration and mobilization to turn out new voters. She said both new and veteran voters can find many helpful resources at the Rock the Vote website.
In addition to voting, town hall participants were urged to push their members of Congress to pass a coronavirus crisis fiscal relief package. We must make clear to those running for re-election that there are devastating consequences to their failure to act on a stimulus bill that includes needed supplemental unemployment benefits and support for schools and states struggling to cope with the revenue impact of the COVID-19-induced recession.
“Healthcare and education are going to be the biggest fights that we have,” said Watkins. “If we don’t invest in our schools and children during this pandemic, we’re going to see years and years of hurt.”
One way to send that message to the politicians—particularly in the Senate, which has refused to take up the HEROES Act passed weeks ago by the House of Representatives—is to register to vote and stress to elected officials that emergency funding for education and state and local governments is a voting priority.
That’s why protecting and strengthening voting rights is so important right now, DeJesus said. “From Florida to Wisconsin, Georgia to Texas, Republican governors and state legislatures are using the pandemic to make it harder for Americans to vote,” she said.
“Voting is really personal for me,” she said. “My parents came to the mainland from Puerto Rico, and as soon as they arrived—as U.S. citizens—they voted. For us, in our family, it was almost a religious matter, something sacred. The same way we went to church, we voted.”
Trump knows, she said, that the more people who vote, the more likely he is to lose. “And because so many states are going to depend on voting by mail,” DeJesus said, “he claims, with zero evidence, that mail-in voting is full of fraud—even though he and members of his administration do it all the time.”
She urged town hall participants and all AFT members to use our “secret weapon” to neutralize voter suppression. First, that involved downloading the AFT Votes app, which is free in the Apple or Google Play app stores. It makes sharing information and taking action to protect democracy easy.
AFT members can also volunteer to be poll workers at voting locations on Election Day. Election officials anticipate a shortage of poll workers, so volunteering can help keep more polling places open.
DeJesus said AFT members should be talking with family members and friends about the importance of voting. “Help them understand how much public education depends on voting for education-friendly candidates—at every level,” she said.