What is Government of the People?

Gavin Mackie
NYU Law Democrats

In some respects, the United States has come a long way from 1863 when President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln proclaimed a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” yet only a certain class of white males was allowed to vote and to comprise the government at that time. After decades of persistent advocacy by women and people of color, Lincoln’s vision slowly expanded, and a much broader segment of “the people” gained the right to vote. At the same time, some of those in power have consistently found new ways to restrict access to the franchise.

Often, states turn to redistricting to prevent people from voting. Common schemes concentrate citizens of certain ethnic or racial groups together in a single district, disproportionately limiting the number of representatives they can elect. Other plans dilute voting power by dividing these communities into multiple, majority-white districts, guaranteeing their votes are always outweighed by white votes. Whatever the method, the effect of these race-based redistricting schemes is to reduce, and in some cases eliminate, the ability of the marginalized communities to elect candidates of their choice and to be represented in government.

Some of the worst racially gerrymandered districts are overturned in court. Last term, the Supreme Court addressed redistricting cases from Virginia and North Carolina. Often, gerrymandered districts are upheld despite disproportionately impacting minority communities because these efforts are legal as long as they can be explained on non-racial grounds, though the Supreme Court will hear a case on this issue next term. Whatever the outcome of that case, the issue will ultimately need to be addressed through Congress.

Redistricting is not the only way that states target the voting rights of minority communities. One of the most visible efforts in recent years is an increase in restrictive voter ID laws, which require people to obtain specific forms of government ID before voting. Other efforts include limiting early voting and restricting the days on which early voting occurs. These laws disproportionately affect people living in cities and low-income communities by forcing them to allocate scarce resources to exercising their right to vote. Most states restrict the rights of convicted felons to vote, often for years after they have served their sentence. All of these measures disproportionately affect communities of color.

Just as efforts to restrict voting rights have continued and changed, the resistance has never stopped and is continuing to grow louder. President Obama, along with former Attorney General Eric Holder, has announced a new initiative focused on redistricting reform. Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill in the House that would require all states to appoint an independent commission for redistricting. Jason Kander, former Missouri Secretary of State, started the organization Let America Vote to combat all manner of restrictive voting laws. Their leadership, as well as that of countless grassroots organizations, provides us with a focus to channel our concerns into collective action.

If we are serious about government of, by, and for the people, we must make a conscious effort to ensure that all people have a voice in that government. To honor that commitment, we cannot let the powerful decimate voting rights for political gain, or restrict ballot access to perceived political opponents. This problem can only be partially solved by the court, and political pressure will be vital to pursing this vision. With the Party of Lincoln once again in control of the federal government, we must continue pushing each other to fulfill his vision for all people.

Published by

The Commentator

The Commentator is the official student newspaper of New York University School of Law and a seven-time winner of the American Bar Association’s Top Law School Newspaper Award. Founded over 50 years ago in 1966 as a biweekly print publication, The Commentator was re-launched as an online newspaper in 2015.

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