What does a healthy democracy look like?
There are many different answers to that question and none of them exactly alike. In a state of 2 million people, let alone a country of about 330 million, there are bound to be significant differences of perspectives and values. At the ACLU of Nebraska, we see plenty of them.
To me, a healthy democracy includes a sense of optimism; an unabashed ‘can-do’ individual and collective community spirit; people power preserved through voting rights and citizen participation; civic pride; robust individual liberties free from government overreach; transparent, competent governmental institutions; effective checks and balances; a free press; quality public education; and a fair opportunity for everyone to succeed in their own pursuit of happiness.
While we may not all hold the same vision of what a more perfect union looks like or have the same game plan for how to achieve a more perfect union, most of us can agree when something is a warning sign.
On this one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection – an armed attack upon our democracy – I want to take a moment to reflect and recognize how imperiled our heathy democracy is in this moment and ensure we recommit to doing all we can to protect the democracy we hold dear.
Even though we had historic turnout and another fair and free election in Nebraska in 2020 and despite the fact that voter fraud is exceedingly rare everywhere, recent University of Nebraska polling showed more than half of rural respondents (53%) and a significant number of metropolitan respondents (29%) said they had very little confidence in voting and election systems around the nation. Almost half of rural respondents (48%) and more than a third of metropolitan respondents (35%) said they have “not too much” or no trust at all for state newspapers. Results for national newspapers were even worse.
A career in civic life has taught me to take poll results with a grain of salt, but these numbers are still troubling. Without shared confidence in our democratic system and the institutions that work to hold public officials accountable, I believe we’re much less likely to stay informed and use our power at the ballot box, in the halls of power and in our communities.
To be clear, these trends are the direct outcome of a national effort to undermine trust in our elections. And there are ever growing examples of Nebraska leaders who have embraced and perpetuated this campaign to undermine trust in our elections and our democracy. The same campaign has targeted journalists – who aren’t infallible – but generally do their best to be fair to the truth.
This campaign of mistrust has been furthered by officials in some of our state’s highest elected offices, from Rep. Adrian Smith, who “would not answer whether he thought Biden won,” to Secretary of State Bob Evnen giving full throated support to Attorney General Doug Peterson signing onto a lawsuit that “repeat[ed] a litany of false, disproven and unsupported allegations [regarding] mail-in ballots and voting.” Let’s not forget a sitting member of the Nebraska Legislature advocating for a statewide election audit after a general election with record turnout and zero reports of fraud — or another state senator embracing the anniversary of the insurrection with a bill focused on the almost nonexistent issue of voter fraud.
At the ACLU, we like to say that voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, the fundamental right all our other rights and liberties rest on. If people stop voting or if they stop believing in results just because they don’t like the outcome, we’re in trouble.
Strengthening our fragile democracy must be a shared project.
Here’s how we plan to help:
- We’ll continue to pour resources into education, engagement and mobilization. Our work mailing ballot applications before the Lincoln and Omaha city elections boosted turnout. Our efforts surrounding redistricting encouraged historic community engagement that stopped the very worst and most overt partisan and racial gerrymandering proposals. And a two year project that just wrapped up has streamlined voter registration and expanded access for tens of thousands of Nebraskans.
- Our elections are secure but they’re not perfect. We’ll keep working to tear down unjust barriers such as Nebraska’s arbitrary two-year waiting period for people with felony convictions, which impacts Black, Indigenous and Latinx Nebraskans the most. That work involves systemic reform to ensure confusion around the law does not further disenfranchise eligible voters and a continued push for voting rights restoration.
- We’ll keep looking ahead to the next challenge. We’ve made a significant contribution as members of the Decline to Sign voting rights campaign opposing a voter ID restriction, and we’ve also secured funding to bring on a voting rights attorney this year.
- Finally, our team will continue urging state officials to use their power to support our democracy, not undermine it for short-term partisan gains. It’s past time for them to be listening to their better angels in public discourse and policy debates.
I love my community, state and country too much to let a big lie be the end of the story. Let’s instead commit and recommit to using our individual and collective voices to truthfully and fearlessly protect our democracy, voting rights and the rule of law. It’s an honor to live in and serve this democracy. We cannot be tempted by apathy. We must instead remain vigilant in and continue our work together toward a more perfect union.