Diversity Dialogue: Voter suppression elsewhere really is an injustice for people everywhere

By Donna M. Chiera

In my role as a member of the AFT Teachers program and policy council, I sat through many discussions about charters, privatization and changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The discussions were always about somewhere else, so I listened half-heartedly — after all, I work in New Jersey, a progressive, labor-friendly blue state.

But all that changed with the election of Chris Christie as governor. His conservative views and messages connected with a majority of N.J. voters. He served with high approval ratings for most of both of his terms. He is gone, but the impact of his education “deforms” still lives on. Lesson learned: Even in New Jersey, elections matter, and elections have consequences.

Enter Donald Trump in 2016 with his message of “America first,” hate, prejudice and “I am your redeemer.” I, like many, thought he had no chance of becoming president. While he didn’t win the popular vote, he still became our president.

During his four years in the Oval Office, I slowly watched our democracy whittle away, waiting for the GOP majority party to shut him down. They didn’t, and his anti-democracy legacy lives on, even though we elected a Democratic president in 2020 and have a slim Democratic majority in Congress. Elections matter, and elections have consequences.

It seems the GOP understands that with the changing demographic in states and current state election laws and regulations, they may never win another national or statewide election. Instead of changing with the times, they decided it is time to change the rules. In Republican-ruled states, election reforms are on a fast track. Unfortunately, the reforms are not to expand the voting rights to involve more people in our democracy; the laws are designed to suppress the vote. Attacks such as shortening early voting time periods, mail-in ballots, voter ID, limiting the number of ballot drop boxes and putting a time frame on when ballots need to be postmarked are just a few of the laws being proposed to make sure they level the playing field to eliminate voters who tend to lean the other way. Let me be blunt: They want to make sure people who are black, brown, poor or any other category other than white can’t vote. Their intentions are to silence minority populations by 2022 for Congressional elections and certainly by 2024 for the next presidential election.

Even though we are in New Jersey, a progressive blue state, we need to join in the fight. We survived the policies promoted during the four years of Trump because of the makeup of the House of Representatives and our state government. One election cycle can change the dynamics and open the door for bad ideas to become bad laws and policies. We need to pay attention to not only what is happening in New Jersey but what is happening around the country.

All of us need to step up to protect our democracy by protecting and expanding voter rights, no matter what our ethnic background is. Suppressing voting rights of people of color is a social justice/civil rights issue and will impact all of us. You can stay informed and stay involved on many levels: signing petitions, writing letters, making calls, attending rallies or meetings. Also, urging Congress to pass HR1 and SR1, even if it means changing the filibuster rule to exempt voting rights and democracy protections are excluded from the 60-vote requirement to a simple majority. Keep informed by registering with AFT Votes or Fair Fight.

In New Jersey, the full legislature will be on the ballot in November. We are one of two states with a governor’s race, so attention will be on us and resources from both political parties will be flowing into the state. You can bet there will be a push to change the makeup of our Senate and Assembly by targeting the general public to believe our current makeup works for the “special interests.” We can’t sit by and allow that to happen — that is how we ended up with Chris Christie.

In 2021 and 2022, democracy and voting rights are on the ballot. Remember: Elections matter, and elections have consequences.

Donna M. Chiera is the president of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, a vice president for the American Federation of Teachers and a vice president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO executive board.