In the third installment of the College’s “After The Insurrection: Conversations on Democracy” series, Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, visited Bowdoin virtually on Thursday for a talk moderated by Adjunct Professor of Government George Isaacson.
This week’s discussion explored how the future of our democracy is predicated on protecting the right to vote and, by extension, fair elections.
Pérez began the talk by stressing that all attempts to improve our country will inevitably be squandered without free and accessible elections.
“Nobody’s personal preferences, agendas, goals, hopes or dreams for this country are going to be materialized if we don’t have an effective and fair way to express those hopes, dreams and goals at the ballot box,” Pérez said.
Pérez acknowledged that the events surrounding the 2020 election have given plenty of reason to be disappointed in American leadership and electorate, yet she remained optimistic, citing the large number of pro-voter laws passed in the past year. Eleven states expanded their absentee voting systems in November of 2020. Twenty-four states provided prepaid postage for absentee ballots during the November 2020 election. Ten states, up from five pre-COVID-19, mailed voters their absentee ballots automatically.
“It was at a pace unlike anything I have ever seen,” Pérez said.
Despite such rapid accomplishments, Pérez acknowledged, voter suppression continues to pose a threat to our democracy, from the disenfranchisement of felons to gerrymandering.
“There are definitely some places where it is obvious. People are drawing lines to protect their jobs. Or to protect their parties. That defeats the whole point because politicians should not be choosing their voters, voters should be choosing the politician,” Pérez said. “The Brennan Center has produced a number of reports that indicate that we have some highly gerrymandered areas.”
Named after Associate Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, a leader of the Court’s liberal wing who served from 1956 to 1990, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice is a nonprofit law and policy institute. Rooted in the “Living Constitution” philosophy of its namesake, the Brennan Center takes an interdisciplinary approach to addressing challenges confronting American democracy. Pérez spearheads the Voting Rights and Elections Program in a wide variety of ways, from litigating in courtrooms to fundraising in church basements.
“We spend a lot of time [in] what I would call the ‘court of public opinion,’ and it is really exciting to be able to do this work because it’s founded in Justice Brennan’s ideas,” Pérez said. “He made famous the idea of a ‘Living Constitution,’ the idea of a constitution that was not static or frozen in time but one that had to be evolving and dynamic in order to actualize its principles. That is the way the Brennan Center thinks about the world; it’s changing and dynamic, and we need to be ready to meet whatever moment is with us.”
The Brennan Center is a nonpartisan organization, but modern political parties have shifted the dynamic in discussions of voter suppression towards a more partisan narrative.
“It used to be that people from all political parties wanted a free, fair and accessible vote,” Pérez said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It really seems like there are some political parties, certainly at the local level and to some extent at the national level, that the only way they’re going to hold onto power is by putting barriers in front of the ballot box.”
Moreover, the American political sphere has seen a shift towards the unabashed sharing of disinformation and falsehoods.
“[What the 2020 election] taught us was, ‘how do you deal with this?’ You do not spread it. You only respond with the correct information. You do not repeat falsehoods, even if it’s to say that it’s false,” Pérez said. “This is really hard because journalists like to be, ‘gotcha,’ they like to show proof. It’s like that old saying, don’t tell people not to think about a purple elephant. That’s all they’ll be able to think about.”
Pérez’s talk, along with the other conversations in the series, has provided a framework for understanding the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.
“I remember the day of the Capitol siege. I knew, even though I’m an international student, how big of a threat to American democracy that day posed,” Gizem Dogan ’24 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I’m still working to understand the lead-up to that day, and these talks, Pérez’s especially, have really helped.”