I will never forget the first time I was able to vote in the United States. After fleeing violence in my home country of Ethiopia and making the perilous journey to Sudan, I was finally granted political refugee status and traveled to Los Angeles to make a new life for myself at the age of 15.
Eventually, I became a U.S. citizen and in 1992 I cast my first vote for president in the wonderful country I now call home.
I have looked forward to participating in every local, state and national election since casting that first ballot. Yet today, the right I risked my life for is under assault by extremists who want to rig the political process in favor of the wealthy few. Americans are being denied access to the ballot box through unconscionable laws that disenfranchise legally registered voters.
New voter suppression laws are popping up around the country, aimed at disproportionately impacting people of color, the elderly, the disabled and young workers.
The corporate right-wing has long tried to make it more difficult for working people to speak up on the job. Now they are expanding their efforts to the ballot box. Already this election cycle, voters in Arizona, North Carolina and Rhode Island have faced longer lines and fewer polling locations. And with Congress unwilling to act on voting reform, we can expect more of the same in November.
Working people cannot build a better life without a fair democracy. The economic rules are written by the men and women we elect. If elections are rigged in favor of those who champion inequality and trickle-down economics, we will never have an economy of broadly shared prosperity.
That’s why the labor movement is fighting to make sure every vote counts — irrespective of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. In that spirit, we are pushing for policies that increase participation in our democracy. Restoring the right to vote for the formerly incarcerated, automatic voter registration, early vote expansion and same day voter registration would be a good start.
There are some hopeful signs. Last Friday, federal and local courts struck a blow for voting rights by rolling back three state measures designed to deny certain Americans access to the ballot. North Carolina’s voter ID law was blocked as “racially discriminatory,” while Wisconsin’s version was substantially weakened. In Kansas, a county judge ruled that voters who did not provide proof of citizenship when they registered must still have their votes counted. This follows a recent decision calling for Texas to fix its voter ID law.
States like Oregon and Virginia are being proactive. Just last year the governor of Oregon signed a law that automatically registers everyone eligible to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s license. The governor of Virginia is fighting to restore voting rights to nearly 200,000 formerly incarcerated men and women which, if enacted, would be one of the biggest advances ever taken by a state.
Whether its judicial decision or executive action, more and more leaders are recognizing what we know to be true: restricting the right to vote is not only an affront to our principles as Americans, it violates the laws of our land.
The 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million ballots cast in Florida. No Floridian needs to be reminded that every vote makes a difference.
I did not emigrate from Africa to America to live in a nation where voting is a privilege, not a right. Our elected leaders should be making it easier, not harder, for people to register to vote and to cast their ballots. As a labor leader, a refugee, an immigrant and a proud U.S. citizen, I will never stop fighting to guarantee that every single American can have their votes counted and their voices heard.
Tefere Gebre is executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.