Why elections? Nuts and bolts of how movements change laws

BY:Cameron Orr| June 25, 2024
Why elections? Nuts and bolts of how movements change laws


Some left and progressive people today are understandably too disgusted with the Biden administration’s support for Israel as it carries out its genocidal campaign in Palestine to even consider joining mobilizations to the polls in November to prevent a MAGA–Trump victory. While anger with both major parties leading to disaffection with voting is not a new phenomenon, the question has become sharper in the context of mass struggles for justice in Palestine, and this is reflected in debates taking place within the party. Some party members are searching for various theories that could show how a boycott of the presidential election or how voting for some third party figure could serve as part of the basis for an alternative path forward toward peace and social progress. Many of these theories rely on drawing a kind of equivalency between the extreme-right GOP and the Democratic Party.

One basic problem with these theories, however, is that they ignore, and are formed separately from, the perspectives of most mass working class and oppressed people’s organizations in the U.S. Behind the issue of the vote is the question of whether or not we are going to work in conjunction with the broad labor and democratic movement to help fight for and win a pro-people legislative agenda.

International working class solidarity cannot be built by dismissing the perspectives of mass working-class and oppressed people’s organizations of struggle in the U.S.

Institutions and movements like the AFL-CIO, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, United We Dream, the Native Organizers Alliance, and the National Congress of American Indians, to name a few, represent large numbers of the organized and politically active sections of those core social forces that must form the basis of the struggle for democracy and socialism. In recent decades, these have largely seen the Republican Party, sometimes joined by right-wing Democrats, launching increasingly aggressive attacks on past gains, and staunchly opposing even minor steps forward, often with violent rhetoric. Meanwhile, most of the elected officials supporting or able to be moved into supporting various sections of the labor and democratic movements’ legislative agendas have been found within the Democratic Party. Even organizations fighting for changes to foreign policy, like American Muslims for Palestine, have focused their political action on putting pressure on Democratic Party officials to change their positions, and most elected representatives supporting the demand for a ceasefire and other pro-peace legislation are Democrats. Some left trends rejecting the concept of mobilizing an anti-MAGA electoral front grow out of justified anger at U.S. imperialism, which is advanced by both of the monopoly capitalist class dominated parties. What they miss, however, is that international working class solidarity cannot be built by dismissing the perspectives of mass working-class and oppressed people’s organizations of struggle in the U.S.

From the struggle for the Ten Hours Bill in Marx’ day, to the MLK-led struggles for the civil rights acts of 1964–5, to today’s struggle for the PRO Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and For the People Act, for ceasefire resolutions, or for a Green New Deal, working-class and oppressed people have long engaged in campaigns to change laws to improve their own lives and increase their collective power. Likewise, they have struggled to defeat legislation that would harm them. Throughout its history, the Communist Party has been a part of these struggles and worked to help working-class and democratic forces develop stronger unity in fighting for their demands.

The importance of elections to working-class and people’s movements becomes clearer as one gains experience with the nuts and bolts of organizing for legislative advances.All those engaged in these battles are forced to take stock of those legislators who will vote to pass a particular bill or bills being fought for, those opposing it, and those in the middle who, depending on the pressure put on them, could be swayed in either direction. Those engaged in struggles to defeat anti-people laws must also pay attention to which elected officials are pushing them forward, and which are likely to cast a vote blocking their advance.

Between elections, various organizing tactics must be used to exert pressure where it is needed. These tactics are equally important aspects of building power and winning movement demands, but this article is focused on the electoral component. When these campaigns approach an election season, to better the chances of getting positive legislation passed, or negative legislation defeated, it is necessary to replace elected officials who are legislating against people’s needs, or who stand in the way of passing needed laws, with those who either support the movement’s legislative demands or can be pressured into supporting them.

The balance of forces in government plays a significant role in determining the direction and pace of change.

The balance of forces in government — together with the actual level of united, independent organization achieved by working class and oppressed people at any particular time — plays a significant role in determining the direction and pace of change, that is, what is politically possible at any particular moment, both for progressive and anti-democratic forces. It is part of the objective reality that all people’s forces must contend with once engaged in a political fight, no matter their ideological orientation. Any forces within a progressive coalition fighting to advance or defend working people’s interests that argue there is no difference between those figures in government opposing that coalition’s legislative agenda and those that support it, or that urge their compatriots not to organize around the vote to reduce the number of their opponents in government and to increase their number of supporters, will be dismissed and pushed aside. Many will conclude that such people are more interested in hearing the sound of their own voices than in helping to seriously deal with the immediate concrete problems affecting our class and people.

It was through this type of political action — i.e., the fight for legislation — that the Michigan labor movement and its allies were successful in overturning anti-union laws last year. Organizing for mass mobilizations to the ballot box played a crucial role in this fight. The GOP had taken control of the state in 2010 and quickly moved to gerrymander the state and pass “right-to-work” (for less) laws. Organized labor quickly brought together enormous protests that rocked the state capitol. But it also took part in a decade-long political battle to reverse these losses. Following a citizen-led ballot initiative to redraw the gerrymandered districts, the Michigan AFL-CIO helped fight for fairer maps. In 2022, the labor movement and its allies mobilized a historic voter turnout and made sure Democratic legislators would make repealing “right to work” their top priority. This resulted in Democratic control of both statehouses and the governorship, and Michigan soon became the first “right to work” state in many decades to get rid of the union-busting law. The changed balance of forces in the state government also opened up the door to other victories shortly afterward in the struggle for LGBTQ and abortion rights, and for gun safety laws.

Similarly, the New York State tenant movement also won significant protections for tenants in 2019 by combining the electoral struggle with other organizing efforts. They focused their attack on a group of State Senate Democrats who were caucusing with Republicans to block these and other reforms, including by knocking on the doors of tenants who lived in those Senators’ districts, to inform them about the issues and what role their elected officials were playing, and bring them into the movement. As a result of these and other efforts, in the 2018 State Senate election, six of the eight GOP collaborators were replaced with Democrats who strongly supported the tenant movement. Soon after, 36 Democrats and 0 Republicans voted for the new tenant protections, while 22 Republicans and 4 Democrats voted against them. In addition, because of the change in the balance of power in the New York State Senate (the New York Assembly already had a Democratic supermajority), bills were also passed that had been stalled for years advancing voting rights, reproductive choice, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, and other issues.

Coalitions fighting around specific pieces of legislation also have to pay attention to details like who are the members and chair of the committees responsible for approving that legislation, putting pressure where needed to bring legislation to a vote. These and other factors can represent roadblocks even when there is majority support for needed legislation. Republican control of certain committees has been a factor for many years in preventing the PRO Act, the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Act, and the For the People Act from being introduced for a vote.

Another roadblock to passing these pieces of legislation in the last Congress was the filibuster, a Senate rule which requires 60 of the 100 Senators to end debate on a bill and finally bring it to a vote. While the Democratic majority in the House and narrow Democratic majority in the Senate might have passed these bills (though Senators Manchin and Sinema, whose votes were needed for a bare majority, often align with Republicans against people’s needs), the filibuster rule empowered the GOP to prevent these bills from being voted on, and some Democrats in the Senate (including Manchin and Sinema) would not support changing these rules. A struggle therefore is needed to elect a majority of Senators that support changing these rules so that only a simple majority is required to call for a vote on any particular piece of legislation.

Court members at various levels matter, too. For example, after the Newark city council passed an ordinance in 2015 to create a Civilian Complaint Review Board, the N.J. Supreme Court voted 6-1 in 2020 to eliminate the Newark CCRB’s subpoena power and some of its investigative authority, saying legislation would be required to allow this. Only the Corzine-appointed Justice Rabner voted against this decision, and all the Christie- and Murphy-appointed justices approved it. The police accountability movement is now fighting across the state for pro-CCRB legislation at the state level and pro-CCRB resolutions in various municipalities.

In a more well-known case, the five justices that voted to overturn Roe v. Wade were appointed by Bush and Trump, while those that voted against overturning it were appointed by Clinton and Obama. A struggle is needed to end this extreme-right control of the court in the immediate term by expanding the number of justices until the balance of power is favorable for making more fundamental Constitutional reforms to the court, such as making judgeships elected, term limited positions. Some Democrats support expanding the court, which would require majority approval in the Senate, but others do not, and Biden has not fought for this option, saying it would be “a mistake.” The danger of the current extreme-right controlled Supreme Court could take on a whole new dimension in the event of a Trump presidency, which could rely on SCOTUS powers to bypass Congress in the event of a Democratic majority in order to implement the MAGA right’s Project 2025 agenda.

A united working-class and oppressed people’s movement struggling for political power cannot be built without engaging in fights for concrete pieces of legislation.

The struggle for reforms alone will not get us to socialism. That is why the Communist Party is needed, to be that force that consistently fights for working-class-led unity in the struggles to defend and expand democracy, while helping to raise class and socialist consciousness. But a united working-class and oppressed people’s movement struggling for political power cannot be built without engaging in fights for concrete pieces of legislation to improve people’s lives, and this requires taking part in the electoral battles necessary to win a people’s legislative agenda. It is also on this basis that Communist candidates and independent candidates from the broader movement can be raised up to take the class and democratic fight directly into the halls of power.

“[People] make their own history,” Marx wrote in 1852, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

We will not be able to make our own history if we’re unable or unwilling to struggle for the changes we can make right now, based on the actually existing political reality we happen to find ourselves in at this particular moment.

Our vote is not an individual expression of our personal convictions, but is rather part of a huge, tactical collective action we take in conjunction with millions of other working class and oppressed people, based on the immediate political reality we find ourselves in. If we want to help our class and people make the legislative advances and prevent the defeats that are on the table right now, we must consider our vote as one of the ways in which we make these victories possible.


Images: Young CPUSA / YCL members at the June 18 Poor People’s Campaign rally in the nation’s capital, DC Communist Party (Twitter);


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