Telephone town hall addresses 2020’s crucial question: Will we have a free and fair election?

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Joined by three leaders in the effort to protect and extend voting rights and access in this presidential election year, AFT President Randi Weingarten told nearly 25,000 participants in a May 19 telephone town hall that the crucial question of 2020 is: “Will we have a free and fair election?”

A line to vote in Wisconsin, composed entirely of people of color

The discussion included Stacey Abrams, founder and chair of the Fair Fight 2020 voter protection organization and a former state legislator who narrowly lost her bid for the Georgia governorship in 2018; Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP; and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who was a candidate for her party’s presidential nomination and is a co-sponsor of federal legislation aimed at protecting every American’s right to vote, emphasizing mail-in ballots as one of the safest ways to participate in the time of the coronavirus crisis.

Weingarten said AFT members should expect President Trump’s campaign to repeat many of the tactics it used in 2016 to win election as he seeks a second term this year. She noted that the Republican Party and its allies have committed $20 million to fight efforts to protect voting rights.

“We don’t have a president who wants people to vote,” Weingarten said. “So we have to do this work.”

Abrams has been fighting for voter access since encountering voter suppression tactics in her campaign as the first African American woman to run for governor in Georgia. “There is an organized effort to block the right to vote,” she said, pointing out that this effort is almost always focused on minority and low-income communities. “Our people deserve to have our voices heard.”

As a candidate in 2018, Abrams helped to drastically increase voter participation across Georgia. “I believe in our power,” she said. “When we participate, things work.”

In a nod to the teachers who shaped his life, the NAACP’s Johnson said he was happy to be talking with “some of the most important people I know—teachers.” In contrast, he said, it often seems like Trump is “allergic to teachers.”

Johnson said small changes in voter participation make huge differences in election results. A movement of just 1 percent to 3 percent in turnout can alter the outcome, he said. “This is our moment to do what’s necessary to turn out the vote.”

The NAACP has been deeply involved in what he called “relational organizing” around this year’s elections. That involves neighbors talking with neighbors, co-workers with co-workers, family members with relatives—about the candidates and issues, and the importance of registering to vote and actually voting.

To make that possible, and to counter efforts to weaponize the coronavirus pandemic to suppress voting, Weingarten said, it is absolutely necessary that Congress pass the HEROES Act approved by the House of Representatives. That package of pandemic aid would provide needed financial assistance to state and local governments—including funding to support free and fair elections. “This is not a red or a blue state issue,” she said. “It’s a matter of protecting our democracy.”

Klobuchar closed the session with a discussion of her efforts to win passage of legislation to ensure states have funding and other support to make the national elections accessible to everyone—whether they are voting in person, by absentee ballot, or through general mail-in ballots.

Despite Trump’s frequent assertions that voting by mail opens the process to fraud, there is no evidence of that, she said. “Trump is saying that just to mislead people.” But, she added, it will take a strong Postal Service to handle mail balloting, and that means “we need to start moving in the Senate on the HEROES aid package”—which has funding to strengthen U.S. postal operations.

Citing the recent primary election in Wisconsin, where the Republican Legislature refused to expand absentee and mail voting, Klobuchar said, “People literally put their lives on the line to vote” when they were forced to show up in person at polling places in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 70 Wisconsinites who tested positive for coronavirus have traced their infections back to primary day exposure.

Klobuchar said the Wisconsin experience taught three important lessons: people want to vote, they are angry about voting barriers, and they want their leaders to take actions that will make voting safe and accessible.

The Wisconsin election was highlighted in an AFT resolution supporting free and fair elections that was adopted earlier in May by the AFT executive council. The resolution also notes that the Trump administration has done little or nothing to protect the 2020 elections from foreign interference, and that voter suppression measures have multiplied largely unchecked since the Supreme Court overturned key provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The AFT resolution calls on federal and state governments to take steps to protect the right to vote, including:

  • Allowing voting by mail.
  • Approving no-excuse absentee voting.
  • Expanding early voting.
  • Making voter registration easier.
  • Developing plans for conducting elections under emergency conditions.
  • Passing legislation, such as the measures proposed by Klobuchar and others, aimed at ensuring elections are secure, safe, free and fair.

Weingarten said, “We must not permit the public health crisis to undermine our basic freedoms. States need to prepare. We’ve never had a more serious threat to our democracy.”

[Tom Lansworth]