Beto O’Rourke on Voting Rights, His Time as a University of Chicago Fellow

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has run for president, the U.S. Senate and governor of Texas. But for the last three months, O’Rourke has been spending time in Chicago as a University of Chicago Institute of Politics fellow.

His full-time job is running Powered by People, a Texas-based voting rights and voter registration organization. And in his free time, he’s written the book “We’ve Got to Try: How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible.”

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On Saturday he joins Brandis Friedman in a conversation at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Read an excerpt from the book below. 

“We’ve Got to Try: How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible” by Beto O'Rourke“We’ve Got to Try: How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible” by Beto O'Rourke

I’ve been asked: Given all the other pressing challenges that we face, why should we be fighting for the right to vote?

If this were only theoretical or academic, I’d understand the need to prioritize other issues. However, every other issue imaginable— from our ability to see a doctor, to the quality of our kids’ schools, to the kind of job we can get, to the expectation to be treated and judged fairly within our criminal justice system—is dependent on the right to vote. If your voice is not heard, if your vote is not counted, if your community is not represented, then you will, at a minimum, be less likely to realize the opportunities that this country makes possible; at worst, you will be targeted for and unprotected from some of its most violent abuses.

If we accept that democracy is foundational to our mutual and in- dividual success, then it’s on all of us to save it, restore it, and expand it until every eligible citizen is fully included. We all benefit from democracy when everyone is able to participate in our democracy. Everyone’s in or it doesn’t work.

The question, then, is, what do we do now?

There’s the negative example, of what not to do. That’s 1890, when those in power acknowledged that our democracy was in jeopardy without doing anything to save it. And, so far, that could describe those in power in 2022. Despite controlling the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, Democrats have been unable to pass legislation combating the attacks on elections taking place across the country.

But the fight for the right to vote isn’t over—not until we say it is. And this time, we must ensure that it doesn’t take Congress another seventy-nine years to do the right thing.

That means taking inspiration from voting rights leaders who came before us, the generations of activists who inherited an even less inclusive democracy—one where many were killed for so much as trying to vote—but did not let that stop them from fighting to build a better one.

I’ve come to realize through the aid of history how fortunate we are, at this moment, to be the heirs to this struggle, this service, and this sacrifice. This democracy—as imperfect as it may be—is what sets us apart, not only from so much of the rest of the planet but from so much of human history. We are truly exceptional in that sense. And not for any reason other than that those who preceded us made it possible. Those who wrote and adopted our foundational documents, which defined our aspirations even if the founders themselves did not live up to them; those who fought in wars of independence, of emancipation, and of freedom, and willingly gave their lives for our ability to freely decide our future; those who took a stand against oppression and segregation in our own country, risking and too often losing their lives in the process, so that more Americans could realize the promise laid out in those foundational documents; they are the ones we have to thank for what is possible today.

In other words, while it can be tempting to succumb to despair, given the perilous state of our democracy, we should remember that we are the heirs to something extraordinary, made possible only through generations of significant sacrifice. And we have the exceptional fortune of being the generation that has the chance to save it.

What we do with this inheritance—this democracy that so many gave their lives for—will define us, and by extension, this country for the generations to come. We don’t want the people of the future— our kids and grandkids and their kids and grandkids—to look back on us and condemn us for squandering the legacy established over the last 246 years.

To put it as positively as I can, there is no better time to be alive if you love this country and care about our form of government. It’s never been under greater attack in our lifetimes—and not since 1965 has there been a better opportunity to fight for it.

That’s what draws me to the work that I do. Running for and serving in public office, volunteering for other candidates, testifying at public hearings on elections bills, helping to register voters across Texas, speaking out about the challenges to our democracy, and joining my fellow Americans to do the work to save it—like so many others, I’m trying to do my part, to live up to those who’ve faced much longer and tougher odds and kept trying nonetheless.

Those champions of democracy are my heroes, champions like Lawrence Nixon—a loving father and husband, a doctor, a pillar of his community, a civil rights trailblazer, a proud Texan, and a man who forced this country to move closer to its founding ideal.

Though Nixon’s father had been enslaved at birth, and Nixon himself had grown up in a time of violent segregation, he would rise to meet one of the great challenges of American democracy. And he would do it from the border city of El Paso, Texas.

Excerpted from “We’ve Got to Try: How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible” by Beto O'Rourke. Copyright © 2023 by Beto O'Rourke. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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