Fixing What We Face: How Racial Justice Can Save Our Democracy

On January 18, 2022, Maya Wiley '86 joined the Rockefeller Center as part of its MLK, Jr. Day commemoration for a talk titled, "Fixing What We Face: How Racial Justice Can Save Our Democracy." College President Philip J. Hanlon '77 joined the webinar to introduce Ms. Wiley as a Legal Analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, a Professor of Public & Urban Policy, former Chair of the NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board, and one-time Democratic candidate for New York City mayor.

Wiley began her remarks by "sharing some good news;" 13 percent of the U.S. population reported a more positive voting experience in 2020 in light of pandemic-era voting adjustments like early voting and mail-in ballots. The minority population Wiley referenced was America's disabled population, an often marginalized and under-represented segment of the voting populus.

Conversely, in 2021, another 30 laws across 19 states worked "to make it harder for people lawfully able to vote to do so." Wiley explained that these laws have spiked since 2010, in the wake of the historic election that ushered in America's first Black president and saw increased voting participation amongst minority populations. Wiley also cast blame on the perpetrators of the "Big Lie," which she argues originated after the 2016 election to explain why Sec. Hillary Clinton outnumbered Pres. Trump in the popular vote.

She quoted Dr. King and argued that the only way to save our democracy is through a philosophy of "unconventional love." She questioned those elected officials who memorialize Dr. King, but fail to support those voting right bills being brought forward in Congress for consideration and a vote.

After she concluded her remarks, Blake McGill '22 joined the webinar to moderate a series of questions from audience members. Wiley and McGill discussed the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Wiley explained that the passage of the bills are crucial in order to maintain and expand pandemic-era voting practices like early and mail-in voting, to dismantle a politicized, and often racialized system of gerrymandering, and to protect more generally against discrimination in voting.

Wiley explained that another necessary congressional action should be the elimination of the filibuster. "It is preventing commonsense legislation from…even being heard on the Senate floor," she remarked. She argued that fixation on rules changes like the filibuster is a backdoor mechanism for Senate Republicans to avoid taking a public stand on the aforementioned voting rights legislation. "It is critically important that we the people who vote for the people who represent us see and hear how they vote, and get to hear the debate about how they will vote."

Wiley employed her experience in local government to offer advice to local officials seeking to expand and protect voting rights and access for their citizens. She criticized her home state of New York for its restrictive voting laws and practices, and praised New York City for expanding voting access to green-card holders. She also praised New York City's public match program that she credits for the opportunity to run to be the City's mayor. The match program worked to "empower…average people and to try to level money in politics so you had to…put your feet in everybody's streets…" The matching program combined with the introduction of ranked choice voting "gives more opportunity for unconventional candidates to win [by undermining] the power of party machinery." Even though Wiley didn't win the election, she still stands by the introduction of ranked choice voting. The reform avoids subsequent run-off elections that often diminish the vote of poor and marginalized voters who cannot afford to take additional time off of work to return to the polls.

"We have seen an outright attack, both legal and in terms of violence and harassment [against] people who are poll workers…" Wiley believes it is important to recruit apolitical election administrators and poll workers whose only agenda is to count the votes as they come in. "More people are engaged than before…and this is how [they] can get involved…by participating."

Wiley also believes it is time to expand election protection mechanisms and enhance civic education. This included media literacy programs and an honest re-telling of history. "It has to be willing to unflinchingly examine the history and the underpinnings to the various things we are trying to decide about when we're supporting candidates and deciding whether we agree with their policy positions and whether they're the best for the country."

Wiley and McGill discussed the importance of messaging in increasing issue salience around democracy reform efforts. "I didn't open my remarks with a description of what the Freedom to Vote Act was. I didn't open my remarks with a discussion of what the John Lewis Voting Rights Act says, not because it's not important for people to know it. What I did was I opened with the reality of who is harmed if we don't and helped if we do reform these laws…"