We Can Have a Participatory Democracy Again

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  The stars and stripes flag flying at the Capitol Building, Washington, USA.
WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: The stars and stripes flag flying at the Capitol Building, Washington, USA.

It's time we reclaim our democracy. All around our country, people are waking up and realizing that our democratic processes, our elections, our right to vote, the very core of our identity as a nation, is in crisis. Our democracy is being assaulted by copious amounts of money sloshing through our elections, states actively suppressing the right of millions of Americans to vote, and corporate lobbyist buying unfettered access to politicians.

The impacts of this all out assault on our democratic voice are felt across the country. In Flint, Michigan a governor and a set of emergency manager laws striped a community's right to protest foul tasting, lead laden child harming drinking water. In Arizona, an 85 percent reduction in the number of voting precincts since 2008 disenfranchised thousands of voters in the minority-majority city of Phoenix. And fossil fuel money is so dominant on the airwaves, in elections and in the halls of Congress that planet-saving climate change actions remains politically unfeasible, despite broad support from two-thirds of Americans."

Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, big polluters have spent unprecedented millions of outside special interest money to gut environmental regulations and protect their bottom line. When the oil and pesticide industry spend millions of dollars to get their favorite candidates elected, it's no surprise that the environment isn't at the top of our elected officials' priorities.

For example, in 2014 Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) snuck a rider into a must-pass appropriations bill transferring sacred native land in the Tonto National Forest to Rio-Tinto, a foreign-owned mining company. Interestingly, since 2014 McCain is the top recipient of campaign contributions from Rio-Tinto in the U.S. Senate.

And it gets worse. Once elected, many of those politicians taking polluter money work to erect barriers for everyday Americans who care about the environment to participate in our political system. Such laws suppress the voting rights of people of color, students and low-income Americans and let politicians pick their voters instead of the other way around. As a result, our representatives fail to act on our shared values and concerns for the environment.

Instead of expanding and protecting the right to vote, our politicians are finding creative ways to disenfranchise millions of Americans. Since the Supreme Court gutted key pieces of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, across the nation 22 states passed new laws making it harder to register to vote, eliminating early voting, and closing polling locations in low-income communities. In 2016, there are Americans who are still fighting to exercise their basic right to vote. That's obscene.

This is why I am risking arrest in Washington, D.C. this week, as I join more than 200 diverse social organizations in a Democracy Awakening. From April 16-18, we will engage in three days of protest, education, music and cultural exchange. As powerful interests try to wedge Americans apart, Friends of the Earth is excited to join this unprecedented coming together of historically separate communities to demand a democracy in which everyone's voice is heard and money doesn't buy policy.

Since the very beginning of our shared history, Americans have worked together to tear down the barriers dividing us and ensure that every American enjoys basic human rights, including the right to vote. If we want to protect our planet for future generations, we need to deepen and strengthen our democracy. But when corporate polluters spend millions influencing elections or when politicians manipulate voting rules to restrict who can participate, we all pay a heavy price. It's time for Congress to restore and protect the right to vote for all Americans while enacting common sense rules so that money can't buy regulation. In 2016 your income, skin color, age or ZIP code shouldn't decide if your voice is heard or your vote counted. It's time for Democracy Awakening.

Erich Pica is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Friends of the Earth U.S. and Friends of the Earth Action. Pica is a nationally-recognized expert on energy subsidies, who has worked to reform U.S. tax and budget policy in ways that reduce pollution and spark a transition to clean energy.
Follow Erich on Twitter at: @erichpica; @foe_us
Follow Erich Pica on Twitter: www.twitter.com/erichpica