Young Protesters Score Small Wins in Fight for Democracy

Hungry for the vote

Un-PAC members protest outside the White House on day nine of a 15-day hunger strike in December (courtesy of Shana Gallagher)

A group of 20 college students – including one from Central Texas – ended a 15-day hunger strike next to the White House last week with two modest victories: a potential date for the Senate to take up the Freedom to Vote Act and a January meeting scheduled with staffers for President Joe Biden.

Let us introduce you to Un-PAC, a student coalition that grew out of the youth movement surrounding Bernie Sanders' 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Shana Gallagher, Sanders' Austin-based national youth coordinator and the nascent coalition's executive director, said Un-PAC was created to harness the momentum around the top issues of young volunteers: expanded access to voting and the end of partisan gerrymandering.

"We did a lot of great organizing with students because Bernie actually talks about young people often and about how important and powerful they are," said Gallagher, calling from the scene of the ongoing hunger strike. "He was the only candidate in the race with a national student organization that had funding and resources and staff."

While Un-PAC organized nationally, it drilled down to reach students in Arizona and West Virginia specifically, the home states of U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. The hunger strike began at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix and moved to D.C. after Un-PAC got a meeting with Sinema.

Bryce Lambeth, a junior finance major at Texas State University, volunteered to handle logistics, a glamorous title for the guy who got to shuttle hunger strikers to various locations. "I was working on Bernie's campaign a bit. Then Shana reached out to me and told me about the Freedom to Vote Act," Lambeth said. "After reading it, I was really excited about it. And I realized just how important it was."

The Freedom to Vote Act, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and other congressional Democrats in Septem­ber, contains many of the elements of For the People Act, which failed to make it to the floor of the Senate. Texas Democrats, including lawmakers who'd broken quorum and fled the state to avoid the first special called session of the 87th Texas Legislature and their GOP colleagues' "election integrity" measures, also lobbied for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore and update protections to the landmark 1965 legislation that were erased by a Supreme Court ruling in 2013.

“It’s unfortunate and depressing that democracy reform has become a partisan issue in the United States Senate and state legislatures around the country. We know that conservative voters overwhelmingly support the reforms within the Freedom to Vote Act.” – UN-PAC Executive Director Shana Gallagher

Un-PAC agrees with Texas Democratic stars like state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer, of San Antonio, Gina Hinojosa of Austin, and Jasmine Crockett of Dallas (a top-tier U.S. House candidate in 2022 herself), who each traveled to D.C. to meet with the hunger strikers, that voting rights and democracy protections are issues that cross state lines and are worthy of national attention. But Gallagher is quick to point out that Un-PAC is intentionally non-partisan.

"I was certainly inspired and grateful for the Democrats, but I think the important thing to point out is that it's unfortunate and depressing that democracy reform has become a partisan issue in the United States Senate and state legislatures around the country," Gallagher said. "We know that conservative voters overwhelmingly support the reforms within the Freedom to Vote Act. It's very unfortunately this has become a partisan issue."

Un-PAC did seek to meet with Texas' senators, both Republicans. Asked about the Freedom to Vote Act, Sen. John Cornyn told the Chronicle via a spokesperson he considers the bill to be unconstitutional because it takes away the authority given to states to run their elections. Instead, that authority would be centralized in D.C.; the bill would make the Federal Elections Commission a more partisan body, would authorize what Cornyn considers to be ballot harvesting, and would discourage voter ID requirements. "All of this, I believe, is meant to weaken the integrity measures built into the voting system that most states, including Texas, have," Cornyn said.

Altogether, just in 2021, 19 states have passed 34 laws that will restrict voter access to the polls, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. Texas' Senate Bill 1, which eventually passed after Democrats returned to Austin, and went into effect on Dec. 2, stands out to the Brennan Center as one of the more aggressive efforts to limit the franchise. (During that same timeframe, 25 states, both blue and red, enacted measures that expanded access to voting.)

The Texas law bans some of the most innovative strategies that increased voter turnout in 2020, such as drive-through voting lanes, 24-hour polling sites, and broader eligibility and access to voting by mail. The law also creates penalties for election officials who deny access to poll watchers, and requires those who assist voters to take an oath that they will not interfere or coerce the voter.

Un-PAC has set an informal deadline of Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the Senate to take up the Freedom to Vote Act. If the vote hasn't happened by Jan. 17, Un-PAC will consider additional ways to escalate its tactics.

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