Congress adopted the Voting Rights Act in 1964 to ensure that Black Americans could effectively exercise the franchise. A year later, Congress adopted the Older Americans Act to ensure that our country’s older adults have the services they need to age in community and to prioritize older populations facing special challenges. Almost 60 years later, the back-to-back enactment of the Voting Rights Act and Older Americans Act seems prescient, given that the right to vote is under sustained attack, and that older Americans from diverse communities are some of those most at risk in the battle to save our country’s democracy.
A robust democracy is important to everyone, and particularly important for elders, from people of color and LGBTQ+ communities, many of whom are poor, rely on the public safety net for basic income and health care and depend on a functional government to meet its obligations.
Elders who are part of marginalized communities need more than just a stable status quo — their ability to age with health and dignity depends on equitably expanding the resources dedicated to their well-being, to strengthen public policies that ensure our communities have access to caregiving and elder services, and to build cultural competency and a commitment to equal access so that diverse elders can get the care and supports they need.
It’s not too much to ask that elders live their remaining years able to rely on long-established democratic norms like respect for our country’s legal institutions and the vote, and not have to worry about the roll-back of their rights and freedoms. Almost 8 million of our elders are veterans of World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. They have worked tirelessly for decades in jobs great, menial and everything in between to build the wealthiest nation the world has ever known.
Older Americans are more likely to show up to vote than any other age group. Even though half of people 65 and older earn Social Security benefits of less than $15,000 per year, more than 20 percent of people 75 and older are still paying taxes. On top of all that, elders from diverse communities have made highly important contributions to expanding this country’s commitment to justice. For example, African American elders drove the country’s civil rights movement while LGBTQ+ older people have successfully pushed for much more equal treatment for same gender loving people in recent decades.
As elders enter their golden years, the democracy that they defended and contributed to seems to be unraveling. The alarming evidence is everywhere, including the refusal of our former president (and the majority of voters from his party) to accept the results of the 2020 elections and the violent and deadly assault on our nation’s capital by his followers on Jan. 6, 2021.
In many states, election deniers are running for office and volunteering as election workers with a declared intention to intimidate voters, discard votes, refuse to ratify results they don’t like, and impose rules that make it hard to vote. Reuters has identified over 100 threats of death or violence against poll workers; many experienced election workers are quitting, citing fear and stress.
In the face of the peril, defending democracy and the right to vote must be seen as essential aging issues. Progress needs to be made toward building justice, including passing bills like the Equality Act and the Ruthie and Connie LGBTQ Elder Americans Act and strengthening Social Security and Medicare and other protections and opportunities for elder people of color and migrant communities. But none of that will be possible if we can’t effectively use the vote to bring change; if state legislatures and Congress and the White House are permanently under the control of anti-democratic forces; if a politicized Supreme Court is controlled by the extreme right for a generation or more.
That’s why it’s time for older Americans to do everything possible to defend democracy and the right to vote.
We must stand up to the forces of authoritarianism by supporting efforts to protect fair elections where every person has an equal opportunity to vote. We must support proposals in Congress to strengthen our democratic institutions and we also must support efforts to hold to account those who illegally attack and undermine our democracy and elections. We must oppose efforts at censorship, book banning and other dangerous trends that make it harder to exchange ideas and advocate for change. We must join forces to protect and expand the rights of those who are most marginalized, including the rights of older Americans from diverse communities.
For diverse older Americans and those who care about them, the fight to save democracy and the vote must be our battle. We must join the fight, as we have joined so many before to make this country a better place to live. And we must win.
Michael Adams (he/him) is the chief executive officer of SAGE.