“Democracy Is On the Ballot”

In August 1965, as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders at his side, President Johnson said he had long believed “this right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.” The ability to elect our political leaders and have our voices and votes count is a precious and fundamental right for all of us. Those of us who participated in and lived through the Civil Rights Movement know firsthand that this is a right Black Americans were fighting and dying for not very long ago. In places around the world others are still struggling and sacrificing for a freedom too many Americans now take for granted. But on Wednesday, President Biden issued an urgent call to action as he warned Americans that in these midterm elections—during a dangerous rise in political violence and voter intimidation as candidates are still denying the results of the last election and openly threatening not to accept the will of the voters in the future—“democracy is on the ballot for all of us.”

President Biden said: “I appeal to all Americans, regardless of party, to meet this moment of national and generational importance. We must vote knowing what’s at stake is not just the policy of the moment, but institutions that have held us together as we’ve sought a more perfect union are also at stake . . . Look, my fellow Americans, the old expression, ‘Freedom is not free; it requires constant vigilance.’ From the very beginning, nothing has been guaranteed about democracy in America. Every generation has had to defend it, protect it, preserve it, choose it, for that’s what democracy is: It’s a choice—a decision of the people, by the people, and for the people. The issue couldn’t be clearer, in my view. We, the people, must decide whether we will have fair and free elections and every vote counts. We, the people, must decide whether we’re going to sustain a republic where reality’s accepted, the law is obeyed, and your vote is truly sacred. We, the people, must decide whether the rule of law will prevail or whether we’ll allow the dark forces that thirst for power put ahead of the principles that have long guided us.”

President Biden added: “In a typical year, we’re often not faced with questions of whether the vote we cast will preserve democracy or put us at risk. But this year, we are. This year, I hope you will make the future of our democracy an important part of your decision to vote and how you vote. I hope you’ll ask a simple question of each candidate you might vote for: Will that person accept the legitimate will of the American people and the people voting in his district or her district? Will that person accept the outcome of the election, win or lose? The answer to that question is vital. And in my opinion, it should be decisive. On the answer to that question hangs the future of the country we love so much and the fate of the democracy that has made so much possible for us. Too many people have sacrificed too much for too many years for us to walk away from the American project and democracy. Because we’ve enjoyed our freedoms for so long, it’s easy to think they’ll always be with us no matter what. But that isn’t true today. In our bones, we know democracy is at risk. But we also know this: It’s within our power, each and every one of us, to preserve our democracy.”

Our democracy is at risk…but it’s within our power to preserve it. How can you respond to this urgent call? Ask this fundamental question of the candidates running for office in your own state, and if you have not already voted, vote. As former President Obama also said this week, “Tuning out is not an option.” Black Americans have a special responsibility to our forebears who struggled and died fighting for the right to vote to protect this right for our children and grandchildren. Call all of your relatives and friends and remind them to vote. When you go to the polls bring others with you. See if older neighbors and relatives might need a ride—but also be sure to ask young people you know if they need a ride, if they know their polling place, or if they need any other support to make their voices heard. A national poll released last week by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School showed 40 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they will “definitely” vote this year, which is on track to match or even exceed the record-breaking 2018 youth turnout in a midterm election. For some college-aged young people these midterm elections will be their first opportunity to vote for the future they want and deserve. It must not be the last. It is critical that we help preserve this right for generations to come.

Democracy is not a spectator sport—and it absolutely cannot be now with so much on the line. Please do your part.