My Turn: Civil rights and the rise of ‘ACLU Voters’

For the Monitor
Published: 9/16/2019 8:00:13 AM

‘ACLU Voters” have been popping up across New Hampshire – and they have questions. If you’ve been to a presidential candidate event this year, you may have heard someone introduce themselves as an ACLU Voter – which means that they prioritize civil rights when casting their ballot. And especially for the 2020 presidential election, ACLU Voters want to hear candidates talk more about the civil rights and liberties that impact this country.

No other regularly scheduled national event has more impact on the state of our civil rights than a presidential election. Getting civil rights into the presidential conversation, however, is about more than siloed discussions about the individual rights that someone cares most about. It’s about determining how candidates view the balance between the power of the presidency and each person’s personal liberty.

At the most basic level, civil rights are specific limitations on the government’s power over its people. Government is often the most powerful entity with which a person comes in contact. That is why the U.S. Bill of Rights draws boundaries on where government power stops and individual liberties win. For example, the government does not have the power to establish a religion, to silence its citizens or to jail people without due process.

Every president tests the boundaries between power and liberty. Under the Trump administration, we have seen families ripped apart and transgender individuals blatantly discriminated against within our military. Under the Obama administration, we saw the government unlawfully spying on its own citizens. Under the Bush administration, the country grappled with the definition of torture. Under the Clinton administration, we saw due process and racial justice sacrificed for politics in the name of “tough on crime.”

Then there is the generational impact of a president’s nomination, or nominations, to the U.S. Supreme Court and the plethora of nominations to lower courts. With every nomination comes questions about whether the nominee will uphold Roe v. Wade, how they will interpret the Voting Rights Act, and how they will interpret personal privacy in the era of big tech. With lifetime appointments, a president’s impact on the evolving boundary between executive power and personal liberties continues long after they’ve departed office.

ACLU Voters are asking candidates questions about civil rights not just to decipher their position on specific issues, but to glean their philosophy on this balance between personal liberty and government power. We want to know if candidates respect the limits placed upon government by the U.S. Constitution, specifically by the Bill of Rights. Is their goal to challenge those limits? Do they see the balance as a mere nuisance, something to be tested at every turn?

When a candidate commits to reducing mass incarceration by 50%, it’s not just their devotion to criminal justice reform that is being measured. It is their philosophy as to whether the government’s ability to deny someone their liberty should be a first choice or a last resort. Does a candidate recognize the detrimental impacts that discriminatory incarceration has on certain populations?

When a candidate commits to supporting a third gender marker on passports and IDs, we are asking about their commitment to LGBTQ+ rights. But it’s also a test on whether they believe government can restrict not just personal liberty, but personal identity. Should the government be in a position to force people to comply with a fictitious gender dichotomy?

When a candidate commits to repealing the Hyde Amendment, we are asking about their commitment to reproductive health. The Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being spent on abortion, does not deny people the right to abortion services, but instead denies access to abortion for low-income individuals by preventing their access to health care. In talking to candidates, we want to know if they believe the government should be able to effectively deny a right by denying access to it.

Civil rights should not be a back-burner question, but rather, right up front with health care, jobs and the economy. The president can only do so much about the economy. Any president needs Congress to tackle health care. But the president can single-handedly reshape the civil rights landscape in America. We’ve seen it before. We’ll likely see it again.

ACLU Voters are asking questions and recording answers because nothing less than our liberty is at stake.

(Jeanne Hruska is political director at the ACLU of New Hampshire.)

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