King knew the fight for democracy was both national and local
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., knew the local fights were just as important as national ones in the fight for democracy. Here, he gives a young picketer a pat on the back as a group of youngsters march against segregation in their community of St. Augustine, Fla., June 10, 1964. | AP

Winning big battles like the passage of sweeping national legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Acts that followed were, undeniably, milestones in the fight for democracy. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that and proved so by his actions.

Winning unglamorous tiny battles on the local level is the only path, however, to ensuring that those victories mean anything in our day-to-day lives. Making racial discrimination illegal means nothing to a sanitation worker in Memphis if he cannot earn enough money to feed himself and his family. Dr. King knew that, too, and he put his own life on the line to prove it.

Right-wing political operatives in our day also know that an unglamorous fight for control of an election board in a rural county in Georgia can result in newfound power for them up to and including the ability to nullify democratic rights “guaranteed” by national laws.

In this Nov. 25, 2020, file photo, Fulton County, Georgia, election chief Rick Barron talks to reporters as workers scan ballots during a presidential recount in Atlanta. After Barron refused to go along with Republican election conspiracy theories and alter the vote, county election officials tried to fire him. After a year of threats to his and his family’s safety, Barron resigned at the end of 2021. The GOP will be trying to fill his seat with one of their own. Local and county positions such as Barron’s are the places where the integrity of an election is decided. | Ben Gray / AP

Right-wingers and Trumpites have taken over many such offices and positions on local levels all across the country. With these positions, they have been increasingly controlling the lives of the people. Constitutional amendments to guarantee voting rights for Black people and for women, along with civil rights laws instituted nationally, are being systematically undone today because local right-wingers took the time and made the effort to take over county health boards, school boards, state assemblies, and state senate offices, and mayoralty positions in tiny towns across the country.

Progressive think tanks and organizations—and progressive people everywhere in the U.S.—are mobilizing in support of two national voting rights bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Interestingly, no one in support of those bills can tell us how either of them can possibly, at this point, become law. Yet a fortune in money and time is being spent on getting them passed.

Even if the bills are passed and get to Biden’s desk for his signature, it should be kept in mind that they still leave open to subversion the critical vote-counting process that takes place between Election Day and the day when results are finalized. The most well-known of such days of course comes in January when Congress certifies the outcome of a presidential election, but there are hundreds of county and state elections boards around the U.S. that carry out this same task for thousands of elected offices.

Right-wingers in Georgia and Texas have spent no time or effort whatsoever in trying to defeat the two big election bills progressives are looking to for saving democracy in America. Instead, the right-wingers have worked on winning control of the election boards that count the votes in the local precincts, and in far too many cases, they have secured control of them. They are working on the re-election of local state legislators who will be empowered to tell those boards what to do with votes after the people have cast them. Their local victories will allow them to toss the results they don’t like. If a Democrat wins the presidential race in their state, it will become possible that nothing will stop right-wing elections officials from certifying the Republican instead, nullifying the popular vote entirely.

Relying on a national strategy alone to save democracy amounts to a denial of reality. The only way to save democracy is for Democrats and progressive independents to win many more very local elections. The immediate task regarding the saving of democracy is to win races for offices that, if left to the right-wingers, can be used to take over and corrupt the machinery of our elections. The Trumpian right in America understands this all too well.

People make a big mistake then when they say that the national fight for voting rights, as important as it is, will if won, guarantee the saving of democracy. A Democrat in a tiny town who gets elected mayor or head of the community board because they convinced people they could get the garbage picked up on time and the potholes filled is also essential to saving democracy. It won’t happen without him or her because he or she is also the person who decides whether and where and how many drop boxes there will be for the next round of elections.

We saw laws passed in Texas that took away that right from localities. The power to decide on where to place ballot drop boxes in Harris County neighborhoods, for instance, was taken away by other right-wingers who were elected to positions in the Texas state legislature.

Voters choose candidates at the local level based on things that affect their everyday lives, such as getting potholes filled and garbage collected on time. Progressives can’t ignore local elections if they are going to win the fight to save democracy. The right wing is winning such races across the country. | AP photos

In Georgia, that local person deciding on where to put how many drop boxes can make the difference on whether Sen. Raphael Warnock is re-elected and, therefore, whether the Democrats maintain control of the Senate on the national level.

At the polling place in Brooklyn where I always voted in my youth, the women running the polls were proud believers in democracy. The Trumpites are trying to replace such women with people who literally are neo-fascists. The right-wingers have gained much of their power because they have been paying attention to these unglamorous local positions and offices for years while progressives have been more focused on epic national battles.

Many of us on the left do not understand that there are many possibilities to exercise power on the local level. The right wing and the Trumpites do understand this. We will not save democracy in America unless we also learn the lesson they are teaching us.

Overhauling the election laws on a national level can help, but that won’t entirely prevent election subversion. In large part, that’s because there is no unified election system in place in the country. The problem does not stop with the 50 different state elections that the two big current election reform laws are focused on. There are many thousands of separate county-level elections beneath the federal and state levels, and often many more even under the county level.

So while Congress can fix the way an election is administered, a local legislature can fix the question of who is allowed to vote. Georgia can, as it just has, say anyone who has moved into the state in the last 30 days cannot vote. Another person, an ex-prisoner, cannot vote because he has not paid parking fines.

Local counties can decide how much money they spend to run their elections and even how much candidates can spend.

Ezra Klein pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times that there are 15 Republicans running for secretary of state in 2022 who question the legitimacy of Biden’s win. In Georgia, he wrote, “Brad Raffensperger, the incumbent Republican secretary of state who stood fast against Trump’s pressure, faces two primary challengers who hold that Trump was 2020’s rightful winner. Trump has endorsed one of them, Rep. Jody Hice. He’s also endorsed candidates for secretary of state in Arizona and Michigan who backed him in 2020 and stand ready to do so in 2024.” Klein then quoted NPR: “The duties of a state secretary of state vary, but in most cases, they are the state’s top voting official and have a role in carrying out election laws.”

“Voter suppression is happening at every level of government here in Georgia,” Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Georgia Democratic Party, told Klein. “We have 159 counties, and so 159 different ways boards of elections are elected and elections are carried out. So we have 159 different leaders who control election administration in the state. We’ve seen those boards restrict access by changing the number of ballot boxes. Often, our Black members on these boards are being pushed out.”

Just like in this sea of campaign signs in Fresno, Calif., in 2020, the big national races tower over the thousands of state, county, and local elections in media attention. But if the left and progressives want to save democracy, they have to pay more attention to the down-ballot races which the right has been targeting with great success. | Kirby Lee via AP

Some of the failure by progressives to focus on local struggles is understandable. People seeing that democracy is under threat figure we should focus on the crisis of constitutional democracy playing out in Washington, most clearly seen in the January 6th Trump coup attempt.

The reality, however, is that the local Trumpite running for a state legislative seat is not making their race into a referendum on the former president’s lies about the 2020 election. The Democratic running against them, rather than focusing on Trump’s lies, is more likely to win if they convince people they will be better at repairing the bridge, than getting the garbage collected, or fixing the constantly broken traffic light near the county courthouse.

It should be clear that we can’t fight for democracy just by constantly talking about democracy. That does not end up having meaning for many people. The very local races and local issues are critical, and on a practical level, they should be getting more attention. The added benefit of focusing locally is that very often winning those races, ones in which fewer people vote, costs less money and effort. The Republicans, by winning races in a low population state like Wyoming, end up sending as many senators to Washington as the state of California. One right-winger knocking on doors in Wyoming ends up exercising in his four hours as much power as an entire team of activists fighting for a progressive cause for far more many hours in California or New York.

So it may even be appropriate now for many of us to start looking around to see if there is a local office somewhere for which we can run. If we succeed, we may find ourselves exercising a lot more power than we do now. This is what many right-wingers and Trumpites are doing all over the country these days. Let’s not leave the focus on local offices to them. By ignoring the local struggles, we could lose the fight to save democracy.


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.