Letter to the Majority Leader
October 1, 2020
The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Majority Leader McConnell,
I hope you’re well. I’m an ordinary citizen. I take care of my family and neighbors and do what I can to help the community. I’m writing to you because, though you were not on my ballot, We did elect you, and We entrust the Senate Majority Leadership to you.
The office is a source of great power, but this power is also not absolute. It is tempered by your responsibility to all Americans. This power and its conditions make your vision for America especially important.
Your responsibility to all Americans is written into our Constitution as, “We the people.” To say otherwise is to assert what Lincoln called the “deliberate pressing out of view, the rights of men, and the authority of the people.” Those were the conditions of the Confederate Constitution, which replaced “We the people” with “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States.” Those are the conditions in which deputies are responsible for but not responsible to the people -- conditions in which some are more equal than others. It was described by William Lloyd Garrison as a “hostile independent confederacy, based on oligarchic and despotic principles.” That is not my vision for America, but I am worried that it may be yours.
My vision for America is one that draws its power, legitimacy and direction from its people: We the people. The enfranchised citizens of the United States are those people and their votes comprise the necessary bulwark against encroachments on our liberty. Why, then, has the Senate not done everything in its power to advance the vote among all eligible voters? If it were run like a business, your goal would be to expand the franchise, and you would tout ever-increasing rates of participation. Instead, it’s not. Why?
Donald Trump has consistently complained about “the ballots.” He recently explained, “We'll want to have — get rid of the ballots and you'll have a very — we'll have a very peaceful — there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation”. Is this to say that our votes are not important? How does one “get rid of the ballots”? How should we understand these words?
Shouldn’t we plainly encourage the opposite? Shouldn’t we be focused on ensuring that in this extraordinary time we can safely receive the votes of every possible eligible voter, so we can ensure “the rights of men, and the authority of the people”?
President Rutherford B Hayes faced exactly this dilemma. He followed President Grant in a dangerously contested election wherein he won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote to the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden. Allegations of widespread voter-fraud and intimidation tainted the process. Both parties claimed victory in Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina, and one Republican elector in Oregon had been disputed and unsuccessfully replaced by the state’s Democratic Governor, La Fayette Grover. Congress set up a special electoral commission to determine the winner and settled on the Compromise of 1877 in which the Democrats conceded the election in exchange for an end to Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.
Hayes’ electoral college victory rested on a knife’s edge: 185 to 184. But he lost the popular vote by more than 250,000 -- a margin that is only just larger than Trump’s 2.1% loss in the 2016 popular vote. The acrimony. The controversy. The challenge for our country. These are near mirror images to today. But Hayes never said, we should “get rid of the ballots.”
Hayes and Congressional Republicans, instead, directed all of their power and support behind expanding access to the vote for all eligible citizens. They set as their goal to increase the number of voters and protect them from intimidation.
Hayes described the violations in his diary in 1876, “By murder and hellish cruelties, they at many polls drove the colored people away, or forced them to vote the Democratic ticket.” In an 1880 address to Congress, then Representative William McKinley lamented: “Whole districts have been disenfranchised by the use of the shotgun and the bludgeon, and Republicanism has been hushed into the stillness of death.” The citizens McKinley portrayed were “oppressed, bullied, and terrorized, they stand mute and dumb in the exercise of citizenship, politically paralyzed.” But the Democrat-controlled Congress refused to act and remained bent on undermining the citizens’ situation further: “Congress not only refuses to provide a remedy, but is seeking to break down existing guarantees.”
Republicans would make free and fair elections a mainstay of their platform. McKinley rallied Congress: “the whole power of the Federal Government must be exhausted in securing to every citizen, black or white, rich or poor, everywhere within the limits of the Union, every right, civil and political, guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws." Hayes would write in his diary and take most every address to Congress as an opportunity to repeat these or a variation of these words: “It is the right of every citizen, possessing the qualifications prescribed by law, to cast one unintimidated ballot, and to have his ballot honestly counted.”
Having lost the popular vote did not trouble Hayes, McKinley and the Republican Party. What troubled them was dismal voter participation brought on by suppression and violence. What troubled them was the drift from our government’s Constitutional requirement: We the people. In an April 1879 speech to Congress, McKinley said, “If free and honest elections can not be had everywhere throughout the country, free government is as effectively overthrown as though it had been done by the sword.” The spectre and actuality of voter suppression and violence threatened to replace We the people with “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States” -- to replace our Constitution with the spirit of the Confederate Constitution.
The only solution was the vote. More voters, more voter participation, more polls, more ease of access. To paraphrase: the whole power of the Federal Government must be exhausted in securing to every citizen’s right to vote. This was and is the founding principal for the United States: We the people.
Separated by almost 150 years, we share the dilemma that faced Hayes, the Republicans, and our country at that time. It’s eerily similar. Today, we are amidst a pandemic and badly damaged economy. Then, sections of the country were quarantined with cholera, and the economy suffered from a lasting decline. I ask, what would Hayes do? What would the Republicans do? Were they alive today, what would they do to secure the franchise, get people to the polls, honestly count each unintimidated ballot? How would they use the whole power of the Federal Government to ensure that we the people have spoken?
I ask because Donald Trump has consistently undermined the legitimacy of the ballots and said he will not commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Five Republican Representatives in Congress voted “Nay” on the House resolution that “there should be no disruptions by the President or any person in power to overturn the will of the people of the United States,” including one from your state of Kentucky. Even so, that the Senate passed the same, unanimously, is a thin reed on which to set Democracy.
I ask because Donald Trump, in the first presidential debate, refused to disavow and condemn “white supremacists and militia groups.” Instead, the Commander in Chief ordered the so-called “Proud Boys” to “Stand back and stand by.” He did not condemn them. He gave them quarter to stand back and an order to stand by. They expect to be ready for him. One prominent member conveyed to his followers, “Trump basically said to go fuck them up. This makes me so happy.” The recognition and connection to the President immediately became a slogan and yielded new recruits.
I ask because who do Trump’s Proud Boys and their expanding numbers intend to “fuck up”? Are these the victims Hayes, McKinley and the Republicans had in mind when they saw “whole districts disenfranchised by the use of the shotgun and the bludgeon”? When the voice of We the people has “been hushed into the stillness of death”?
I am asking as an ordinary citizen with no special access to power or claim to reputation. I am asking as one voice who has tried to listen to history and converse with the noblest men of past ages to understand our moment through their vision for America. Most of all, I am asking because this is history, and what we say and do matters. Even I in my insignificance am not spared from this.
But you have an immediate and moral obligation to the voters who delivered your post and the citizens of the country as a whole. You have the office and the power to respond to these questions through the machinery of government. Hayes, McKinley and the Republicans of 1876 will be remembered for their dedication to We the people. They fought to break the oligarchy that ruled the south through intimidation and fraud in an effort to maintain the vision of the Confederacy: We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States. We can see it in what they said and did. For whom will your dedication be remembered?
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
A. Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress. December 1, 1862.
United States of America