‘Voters Showed Up for Democracy’ Despite Record-Breaking Suppression: The Ms. Q&A With Maya Wiley

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“The right to get an abortion, and make personal decisions about how to live, was certainly a big motivator for people showing up, and how they cast their ballots,” said Maya Wiley about the 2022 midterms. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

U.S. voters have faced significant changes in the voting rights landscape over the years—but when it comes to restrictions, the last two years take the cake. Since the beginning of 2021, lawmakers have passed at least 42 restrictive voting laws in 21 states, making last year the worst on record for voting access. Many of the same trends continued into 2022, affecting both midterm turnout and race outcomes, and putting U.S. democracy through the ultimate stress test.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) has been fighting laws like these for over seven decades. Since its founding in the mid-20th century, the organization has played a key role in progressive change and policy, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act (since severely curtailed by the Supreme Court), the Fair Housing Act, the March on Washington, and many more.

Today, the LCCHR is led by Maya Wiley—who in addition to running the nation’s oldest, largest and most diverse civil and human rights coalition, finds time to teach law classes, provide legal analysis on MSNBC and run one of most progressive races for New York mayor in history.

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George Wiley and Johnnie Tillmon, left.

A dedication to legal activism runs in Wiley’s blood: Her father was civil rights leader and academic George Wiley, who founded the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1963. (The group’s first chair and later executive director, Johnnie Tillmon, wrote an iconic article in the first issue of Ms. in 1972, “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue.”)

In the conversation below, edited for clarity and length, Wiley gives her frank take on the 2022 midterms and the upcoming Georgia Senate race; discusses the role of voter suppression in key races this year; and shares her vision for the future of U.S. civil rights.


Roxy Szal: As we continue to make sense of midterm results and preliminary exit polling, can you share some of your top takeaways? What messages do you think voters sent through the way they voted? 

Maya Wiley: My preface is that, obviously, it will be much better when we have actual data, not exit polls. Exit polling tells us a little bit, but it’s always helpful to have the actual numbers.

But overall, I think the message was loud and clear: Voters came out, showed up, and voted because they care about their democracy, and what it represents.

And what democracy represents is not only the ability to vote—although that was certainly on the ballot, particularly for a lot of people of color, Black people in particular. But the right to get an abortion, and make personal decisions about how to live, was certainly a big motivator for people showing up, and how they cast their ballots.

At the Leadership Conference, we did a poll in September which really reinforced what we believed and knew: The majority of Americans are deeply concerned about the state of our country, and it’s about whether we’re solving problems for actual people. 

They are angry and not happy with division—and that includes being angry and unhappy with losing fundamental rights. It includes feeling that the rhetoric was dangerous to democracy, rather than focusing on what we need to focus on.

In our polling, concern about democracy was very multiracial and cross-generational, and crossed partisan lines. Sixty-two percent had said abortion should be legal. Sixty-eight percent said that the country needed to do more to protect Black people against discrimination. 

I think not just in terms of what we saw in the federal elections—but what we saw in Michigan and Minnesota and Maryland, where we saw candidates running on platforms that called for rights, and for pulling people together. They really did focus on issues that people cared about. 

Election deniers lost secretary of state races, by and large. So even if you look outside of the federal elections themselves into the states, and what happened there, it all reinforces a picture that says, voters showed up for rights and democracy.

Szal: Did any specific voter demographic group surprise you, or maybe not surprise you?

Wiley: I won’t say we were surprised, but we were certainly gratified and reinforced.

We saw Black people coming out and voting, despite being really upset about the fact that voting rights have not been restored.

Abortion, obviously, was something we’re seeing and hearing as a key issue. People really showed up for that, especially women of all races. 

Of course, the youth vote was huge. One of the reasons we look at youth vote is both because the youth are our future, but also because they’re the fastest growing demographic we have of voters, soon to be about a third of eligible voters. They’re also the most diverse generation in our country—one that really looks like and represents what the country is. 

We’re seeing really strong turnout amongst the 18- to 29-year-olds. In battleground states, they particularly showed up, in even higher numbers. The youth vote was activated and showed up, again, for rights and justice and democracy.

Even if you look outside of the federal elections into the states, and what happened there, it all reinforces a picture that says, voters showed up for rights and democracy.

Szal: You mentioned the loss of voting rights through voter suppression—a practice that disproportionately affects Black communities.

We have the Georgia Senate races going to a runoff. In that state, Gov. Brian Kemp was reelected against voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. 

In North Carolina, you have Ted Budd, a Trump-endorsed Republican, defeating Cheri Beasley—who if elected, would have been the only Black woman in the Senate

Both of these states—Georgia and North Carolina—have a history of voter suppression that continues into today. Do you think it played a factor in how those races turned out?

Wiley: The reality of North Carolina and Georgia is they are deeply diverse states. They are swing states. And what we have seen in those states is the apparatus of the state being used to suppress the vote—and by “suppress the vote,” I mean everything from making it more difficult to vote, as well as making voters wonder: ‘How much of a difference does it make if I show up?’

The good news is we saw incredible energy and activity around the vote, but also in where and how we saw investment of resources.

I spent a day and a half in Georgia, not long before the election. One of the things that’s very clear is, the more difficult a state makes it to vote, the more complicated it makes its laws, the more it retracts on things like early voting and polling sites, the more confusing it makes it for voters to try to figure out where and how to show up. Anything that smacks of threat and intimidation, all of those factors go into suppressing the vote, particularly in communities of color. All of them were active in those states. 

We saw tremendous turnout, and work and effort and commitment despite those things—particularly among organizations and leaders of color, working to ensure that folks could have a voice, but doing it up a very steep hill, where too much of the government apparatus was not supportive of that voice and that vote.

It matters greatly that Georgia has a voice and a vote that represents the majority of Georgia. Congress should represent their constituents.

A woman leads a chant during a rally advocating for early voting and voting rights on Oct. 30, 2022 in Decatur, Ga. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Szal: If Democrats win the seat in Georgia, what will that mean for the Senate? What would you tell voters about why this race matters?

Wiley: It matters greatly that Georgia has a voice and a vote that represents the majority of Georgia. And that’s actually what our republic is made up of. Congress should represent their constituents.

This Senate race is about whether or not we are going to have a sufficient number of senators working to advance the U.S. to be a more unified country, that is focused on its actual problems, and willing to come to shared solutions.

Let’s take voting rights—a significant issue for Georgians, but a significant national issue, too. Are we going to have folks that are looking at advancing voting and willing to have a real, informed discussion about it?

Are we going to have a discussion about whether we need a child tax credit?

Georgians are really looking at: If the origins of our government are not paying attention to our actual problems and what most of us demand, want and need, then we got to shift our government. It’s not just about the gas prices today; it’s about, can I take care of my family tomorrow?

We’ve got 2.2 million people in this country that cannot see a doctor when they’re sick with health insurance, because we have 12 states that didn’t expand Medicaid—one of which is Georgia. 

I’m saying this from a policy perspective, not a partisan perspective, because we know Democrats don’t all agree with each other. When you have a slim majority, even with the vice president’s vote, and there’s disagreements within the caucus, we have to push the conversations about solutions, and the kind of policies that serve our people and families. 

That one vote makes a difference, how that vote goes, in which direction it goes in. It may not change who the majority is in the Senate—but it does change what the policy discussion is, and what’s possible to come out of the Senate.

Upon the U.S. House of Representative’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (H.R. 7152), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent this telegram to the LCCHR. (Courtesy)

Szal: If you had a magic wand, what voting or elections reform would you implement to make the U.S. more democratic? 

Wiley: Sky’s the limit?

1. Pass the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. It restores the Voting Rights Act, which protects us from discriminatory law changes that are going to hurt voters before they even show up at the polls—which we’ve seen in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas … The Supreme Court has said: All bets are off on protecting voters before Election Day. That’s the shenanigans we’ve seen with making it harder for people to vote.

The Freedom to Vote Act also makes sure there is mail-in balloting and early voting, which helps elderly voters, voters with disabilities, as well those who work long hours and don’t get a day off. Early voting is critical.

2. Make sure we’re preserving the ability to go after gerrymandering.

Racial gerrymandering, right now, already had an impact on the House race in Alabama, and Louisiana, where Black folks lost Black congressional districts. That’s a representation issue, but also partisan. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case; it said it couldn’t decide about partisan gerrymandering. 

We need to make sure that we’re getting Independent Election Commissions in states to draw lines fairly, without discrimination, and without regard to benefiting any particular party, but actually thinking about population. 

3. Polling sites. We got to make sure people can get to a poll that’s not confusing.

4. Get rid of restrictive laws designed to protect against problems we don’t have. 

We do not have voter fraud as a major problem in our elections—yet we create these barriers, like ID laws, that simply make it harder for young people, Black people, women, low-income people to vote, and make it hard for them to get what they need. You have to have resources to get the ID in many instances in order to vote. It just doesn’t make sense. Those things matter when we’re talking about our democracy.

5. Insist that social media platforms have strong policies, and they’re actually resourcing the policing of those policies. Keep disinformation off of social media and ensure people know how to find and see factual information. Misinformation has infected our democracy like a pandemic, because it’s created a perception of problems we don’t have, like the election deniers. It has fomented hate and bias and violence, as well as lying to folks about where to vote or whether they can vote, or how to vote, in order to suppress their vote. 

6. Get Biden’s nominee for the FCC Gigi Sohn appointed as a commissioner. That’s a very practical thing we have to get through Congress, because they’ve got regulations pending right now to protect against discrimination online. Right now, the Senate has refused to move on her nomination. 

She’s someone who has huge bipartisan support. Newsmax’s CEO even supports her. This is not about partisan politics. This is more about big corporations not wanting her on—but it needs to be done, because it’s an important component to what we can be doing right now. That nomination needs to be moved and approved.

Szal: Any final thoughts about the midterms or the Georgia elections?

Wiley: From women of all races, I think the voice and the vote has been very clear: ‘Show up for us, or we will put you out.’ That message was loud and clear in this election.

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

About

Roxy Szal is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.