AFL-CIO calls for universal voter registration

WASHINGTON – The labor movement has added its voice to the demands for voting reform that are sweeping the nation. Today, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called for adoption of a universal and automatic voter registration system that will ensure everyone can be part of the democratic process.

Trumka made the call in a speech Dec. 14 to the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation. “A strong and growing grassroots democracy movement needs to come together to push back against the next wave of state-level attacks on the right to vote,” Trumka declared.

Concern has mounted as, across the country in the last several years, the GOP has worked to suppress the vote in a variety of ways including restrictions on voter registration; voter photo ID schemes that make it harder to vote for students, minorities and seniors; curtailing early voting and unjustified purges of voter registration lists.

Only two days earlier, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Attorney General Eric Holder declared, “It is important for national leaders, academic experts, and members of the public to engage in a frank, thorough, and inclusive discussion about how our election systems can be made stronger and more accessible.”

The attorney general put forward several ideas including automatic registration that moves with the voter, longer operating hours for polling locations, and more days to vote. Holder’s proposals have been backed by major voting rights organizations, including the Brennan Center for Justice.

The attorney general’s move appears to signal that President Obama was serious about election reform when he mentioned it in his victory speech in the early hours of Nov. 7.

The president said he wanted to thank “every American who participated in this election. Whether you voted for the very first time, or waited in line for a very long time – by the way we have to fix that.”

Republicans have taken advantage of majorities they gained in state level governments in 2010 to curb democracy in a number of ways that go beyond just restricting who can vote. They have used the opportunity provided by the post Census redistricting to redraw congressional district lines, for example, in ways that corral voters who tend to vote Democratic together in several districts and spread those who vote Republican into a larger number of districts,

The results of this gerrymandering can be seen in numerous states, with Michigan being only one example. In Michigan votes for Democratic candidates for Congress totaled 2,327,985, beating Republicans who got 2, 086, 804. If district lines were fairly drawn Democrats would have won eight of Michigan’s 14 seats in Congress. Due to GOP gerrymandering, however, the Democrats got only five seats while the Republicans, who lost the popular vote, ended up with nine.

The GOP has already used what many say is this undemocratic power grab to strip the people of Michigan of their union rights and are moving ahead in this lame-duck session to pass bills ending abortion rights and even a bill banning “sharia law” in the state.

Republicans are using their ill-gotten majorities in some swing states to make the Electoral College be determined by their gerrymandered congressional districts rather than through the popular vote, giving them the same advantage in presidential elections that they have already secured in state and congressional elections.

The labor movement sees the fight for voting reform as a fight that is closely tied to the struggle for economic justice in the country.

“Let’s be honest,” Trumka said, “the opponents of democracy and working people are not going to give up on these tactics. But we can overcome them together. We can overcome them if we are all in. We need a broad and powerful grassroots movement to renew the promise of the American Dream, make sure that every working person can – by working hard and playing by the rules – earn a decent paycheck and health care, have a family if they want one, and look forward to a dignified retirement.”

On the issue of automatic voter registration, Trumka  said, “It is the norm for most of the world’s democracies and can be a major weapon to counter the attacks and the corporate cash let loose by Citizens United.”

“We need to fundamentally change access to the ballot,” he said. “Only about two of three black and white voters are registered, but half – half – of eligible Latinos and Asians are not registered to vote today, and that’s unacceptable. We’re going to do something about it.”

He said the AFL-CIO and a variety of groups, including the Brennan Center for Justice, Advancement Project, Demos, NAACP, National Council of La Raza and others are working together to develop a strategy to achieve universal and automatic registration.

Holder, in his talk at the Kennedy Library, a place dedicated to a president who is seen as having helped set in motion some of the important voting rights legislation at stake today, declared, “This nation has come too far, and its people – from all races, religions, creeds, backgrounds, and walks of life – have sacrificed too much not to finish the task of ensuring equal voting rights for all Americans.”


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.