Co-authored by Tova Wang, author of the book "The Politics of Voter Suppression: Defending and Expanding Americans' Right to Vote"
With so much at stake, it's little surprise that the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden passing became a political battle even before Scalia's body had lain in state. While President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell battle over whether the Senate should fulfill its constitutional responsibility and consider judge Merrick Garland's nomination to replace Scalia--and it should--we must look at the role the Supreme Court has played as part of a systematic assault on our democracy.
A small number of powerful actors are driving a takeover of our political system at every level of power--giving power to the wealthiest among us while silencing the voices of everyone else through coordinated attacks on unions and the right to organize, restrictions on voting, and the elimination of restraints on the most affluent Americans' election spending. The result has been a shift in power from the many to the money, giving a very tiny minority of citizens the greatest say on issues ranging from taxation to the environment, from wages to trade policy.
The narrow, Roberts-led 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court repeatedly reinforced this trend while ruling in favor of the richest and most powerful at the expense of the rights of the rest of us. While the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC--that along with a lower court ruling, paved the way for super PACs and the "Wild West" of campaign finance we see now--has become iconic, it was only one of several that has encouraged an unprecedented new wave of billionaire political spending.
In 2013, the Court took the heart out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing states with a history of discrimination in the voting process to more easily enact unfair barriers to casting a ballot. Before Scalia's death, the Court heard arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and was poised to sharply curtail the power of small political donations by unionized workers. Recently, the Court has repeatedly been on the side of corporate interests so much that studies show it is the most pro-business court in the last 70 years.
But the Court is just one of the battle lines in what should be seen as a multifaceted program to weaken the voices of everyday people in favor of the powerful that is also taking place in statehouses and in Congress.
In the states, lawmakers have again and again passed laws to disenfranchise voters--especially communities of color and working people--while at the same time driving up limits on big-dollar donations and disempowering organized employees. Since 2010 states across the country have been passing laws making it more difficult for everyday Americans to vote through cuts to early voting, eliminating programs for youth registration, and voter ID laws. Between 2010 and 2014, 24 states weakened their campaign finance laws, in ways that made lawmakers' dependence on big-check writers greater while allowing greater secrecy on the identity of the key money movers.
The political rights of employees in the workplaces fared no better. In just one single legislative term, from 2011 and 2012, 15 state legislatures passed laws restricting public employees' collective bargaining rights, while states like Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, and West Virginia enacted so-called "right to work" acts which do nothing to help workers but do serve to undermine the ability of unions to represent the voices of working people.
And back in Washington, steps from the Supreme Court, Congress has been no ally of everyday people by refusing to consider voting rights legislation, undermining the pro-worker movement, and allowing a new wave of billionaire donors to easily hide their role while failing to enact policies that would increase the clout of small donations.
Across the board, these assaults are systematically silencing our voices and threaten a full dismantlement of our democracy.
But there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. Last November, citizens in Maine and Seattle voted by landslide margins to enact new laws that enable candidates to rely on small donations to win local elections. Just recently in Maryland, legislators overrode the governor's veto to allow people with convictions who had served their time to be able to vote--bringing some 40,000 state residents back into the fold--and registration is being simplified in a number of states. Across the country, in cities and states workers are uniting to fight for an increase in the minimum wage they are winning.
In order to ensure we continue down the path of progress, we need a Supreme Court that is focused on protecting the rights of everyday people to be heard in our democracy, not just the wealthy and corporations. The Senate must agree to consider Merrick Garland and vet him to ensure he is someone who wants America to live up to basic ideals of equal voice and fairness within the electoral and policy process, not another justice who would reserve political clout for an elite few instead of the many.
Tova Wang and Nick Nyhart are the authors of the report "Democracy at a Crossroads: How the One Percent is Silencing Our Voices", a Democracy Initiative Education Fund report on how an elite few are conducting a concerted, anti-democratic effort to attack three pillars of our democracy: unions, voting rights, and campaign finance laws.