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This Was No Vote Accident

Here in the West Village, in beautiful downtown Manhattan, Election Day morning was overcast, with an autumn chill and some mist in the air. It was early and I was surprised by the number of people waiting to vote – a line about as long as in 2016 – which was great but seemed a little odd because in this very, very blue neighborhood there were plenty of names on the midterm ballot but no contests of any great contention.

That had all been taken care of during the last primary in September, when Cynthia Nixon ran against Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and lost, although she did manage to shift Cuomo a bit left on a number of issues. Now that he’s been reelected we’ll be watching closely—very closely—to see if he follows through.

No, the people I saw standing in line clearly were doing so as an act of defiance and political conscience, casting their ballots as a symbol of their desire for decency and democracy. It was a protest fueled by the need to send a message that was loud and clear: that as voters they would try at every level, local, state and federal, to keep America from under the thumb of authoritarianism. They wanted to make sure strong opposing voices remain shouting in government.

As you know well by now, nationwide, there was great success. Although Republicans held onto the US Senate, Democrats won control of the House of Representatives, perhaps by as many as 40 seats, more than any midterms since the post-Watergate election in 1974. And that new freshman class is filled with women, blacks, Latinos, the first two Muslim-American women, the first two Native American women. (In fact, when the House and Senate convene in January at least 128 womenwill be members.) And the newcomers are young, lowering the median age of Congress by at least a decade.

Progressive ballot measures passed, Democrats flipped the governorships of seven states with no losses, and as Emma Green at The Atlantic reports, “pulled out big victories across state legislatures, flipping six chambers, turning others purple, and shoring up its supermajorities in still more.”

Those chambers include the New York State Senate, which went blue for the first time in a decade, bolstered in large part by the September primary defeats of six Democrats who cynically had aligned themselves with the GOP. Their elimination was the result of hard work by a committed group of activists, many of whom had never engaged in politics before but who saw the need for big, dramatic change.

Turnout in the United States for a midterm election was the highest in more than a century, with 49% of those eligible voting – including a 56% increase from four years ago among young voters, 18-29.

But.

At my polling place the only snag was confusion as to which line was for filling in ballots and which was for scanning them. Yet across the city there were enormous problems—without enough machines in many places, the high turnout meant hours spent in lengthy lines, plus an unusual ballot on two separate pages jammed the scanners; dozens if not hundreds of scanners malfunctioned across the city, contributing to the long waits.

Add to that vast overall disorganization. A friend who planned to be a poll worker reports that the instructions were crammed into a four-hour training session that was “woefully inadequate to explain how volunteers are supposed to deal with a guaranteed 17-hour day, during which they not only do all the visible stuff but also unseal the machines and set them up (a truly scary procedure), handle all the stupidities during the day, and then break down and empty the voting machines and lock them up and certify the results… Even having people around who have done it before does not guarantee a smooth operation.”

At one point, things were so bad, someone with tongue firmly in cheek had the not-so-bad idea that there’d be greater efficiency if the checkout staff at Trader Joe’s took over the polling places.

The city’s Board of Elections has been an antiquated bureaucratic nightmare for years. On Election Day, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the board needs to be modernized and that it’s “making it harder for people to vote, not easier. It is part of the problem. It must change.” City Council speaker Corey Johnson called for the resignation of the board’s executive director, Michael J. Ryan. “Today is not a good day for democracy here in New York City,” Johnson declared, “and we need to do better.”

Rightly, we’ve heard a lot over the last weeks about voter suppression in Florida, Georgia and other states, about punishing and discriminatory ID requirements, ballots lost or thrown out for ridiculous technicalities, polling places eliminated, and right now, elections in which officials Brian Kemp, Georgia Secretary of State, and Florida Governor Rick Scott have abused their power and actively interfered in balloting and recounts, although they’re candidates themselves. These bullying and fraudulent accusations threaten an honest and complete reckoning.

Then, add to this already toxic brew the know-nothing lies and vote-stealing accusations of reality show host Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, he honest-to-God told the right-wingDaily Caller, “…People get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again… It’s really a disgrace what’s going on.”

Seriously, I am not making this up. The President of the United States.

But I digress. As you’ve seen, even in putatively progressive New York, despite our gains (and the fact that two years ago Trump was beaten here in his home state by more than twenty points), we have, as the Brennan Center’s Sean Morales-Doyle and Chisun Lee recently wrote, “some of the most retrograde voting laws and practices in the nation.”

We don’t have early voting or same-day registration. Restrictions on who can cast an absentee ballot and why are punitive, as are deadlines for switching party affiliation.

Yet there is hope. With the new state senate coming to Albany, and a bunch of hidebound, status quo-driven legislators given the boot, a progressive agenda that may include automatic registration, vote-by-mail (solves so many problems) and other reforms, as well as a shakeup of the elections board, is in the works.

What’s more, national trends are positive for New York and everywhere else. On Election Day, there was, as Danny Hakim at The New York Times described it, “a wave of actions aimed at making voting easier and fairer…

“Floridians extended voting rights to 1.4 million convicted felons [the Brennan Center described it as “the largest expansion of voting rights” since the voting age was lowered to 18 almost fifty years ago]. Maryland, Nevada and Michigan were among states that made it easier to register and vote. Michigan, along with Colorado and Missouri, limited politicians’ ability to directly draw, and gerrymander, district lines.” By the time you read this, Utah may have done the same; ballots are still being counted and it’s close.

What’s more, the Democrats have announced that when the new Congress convenes in January, the first vote in the House will be for HR1, an omnibus bill that, as Peter Overby at NPR reports, “would establish automatic voter registration and reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act, crippled by a Supreme Court decision in 2013. It would take away redistricting power from state legislatures and give it to independent commissions.”

The bill also includes campaign finance reform—overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—and anti-bribery measures as well as a ban on White House conflicts of interest and a rule that presidential candidates must reveal their tax returns to the public.

Of course, right now it will never get past the Senate or Trump’s veto but it’s a start. Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, reform leader of the House Democratic Caucus, says, “Give us the gavel in the Senate in 2020 and we’ll pass it in the Senate. Give us a pen in the Oval Office and we’ll sign these kinds of reforms into law.”

This is just the kind of impetus we need to keep the Resistance pressing ahead and for the momentum to keep rolling forward beyond the Election Night successes. Especially because the results last week have only further embittered Trump and his obsequious sidekicks in Congress and the courts. They will keep fighting dirty, spend their cash freely and are led by an autocratic egomaniac with no scruples whatsoever. Their rage and ruthlessness could be the death of us all.

Unless.

We can’t let our guard down for even an instant. Organized people are the answer to organized money, as groups like Indivisible, Swing Left, Postcards to Voters and others have proven in this election. This was no voting accident. Over the next two years to 2020, build on the gains we’ve made so far, fight the gerrymander and other forms of voter suppression, make sure more and more Americans have the franchise and are committed to using it no matter what.

That’s the winning ticket.

More articles by:

MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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