It has been very disconcerting to watch voting rights erode in America over the past 30 years or so. For those of us naïve enough to think that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 19th Amendment, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act settled the thorniest issues around voting rights—we have been forced to rethink our assumptions.
The term “erosion” is not really accurate, though. Eroding seems too passive a verb for what has been happening: the deliberate attempt, by politically motivated legislatures, to shrink voting rights for people whose votes they’d rather not count.
I seem to remember from my 8th grade Civics class that the history of voting rights in America has, traditionally, been one of expansion. The reversal of that trend, via radical, anti-democracy, anti-voting policies initiated primarily by right-wing Republicans, is a shameful blot on a country that claims to be a democracy [“the greatest democracy in the world!”]
So, I feel encouraged by some recent developments that may indicate the beginning of a pendulum swing back in the appropriate direction. Here are a few, in no particular order:
Automatic voter registration
On the campaign trail, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both called for automatic voter registration for everyone at age 18. Voting rights advocates [wait, why is voting-rights advocacy even necessary?] note that these declarations represent a breakthrough, as voting reform has been absent as a front-and-center issue in presidential campaigns for at least 50 years.
Further along this spectrum is Oregon, whose state legislature passed a bill in March 2015 putting that idea into practice.
According to the Brennan Center,
…the new law automatically registers eligible citizens who have driver’s licenses (and do not ask to remain unregistered). While there had been strong and bipartisan efforts across a majority of states to modernize voter registration, Oregon’s law went a step further, giving government the primary responsibility for ensuring that every eligible citizen is registered.
Soon after Oregon’s bill was signed into law, legislators in 17 states plus the District of Columbia and the United States Congress introduced similar bills that would automatically register citizens who interact with motor vehicle offices and ensure that voter information is electronically and securely sent to the voter rolls.
The Brennan Center estimates that the new procedure in Oregon will immediately add 300,000 citizens to the voting rolls.
Making Election Day a national holiday
It has been clear for many years that the first-Tuesday-in-November Election Day schedule is out of sync with contemporary life. Many states have found ways to adapt, mostly by offering early voting days and extended voting hours [both of which have been under attack in the 21st century]. But, because most voting still takes place on a single day, during slightly extended business hours, it’s hard for people to get to the polls, let alone wait in long lines for their turn. It’s also hard to get people to work for election authorities—and the most qualified, such as government workers, people accustomed to checking numbers, workers comfortable with electronic equipment, etc., are otherwise occupied with their day jobs.
Recognizing this disconnect in the most essential activity of a democracy, Bernie Sanders recently introduced a bill into the U.S. Senate to declare presidential Election Day a national, public holiday, making it more convenient for more people to vote, as well as to do the vital work of ensuring fairness and accountability at the polls.
Sanders is realistic in his expectations: Making Election Day a national holiday won’t cure Americans of their embarrassing indifference to voting, but it would make an important statement about a fundamental element of the American democratic system.
In introducing the bill, Sanders said:
We should be doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process. Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a vibrant democracy.
Reversing punitive voter ID requirements
In a decision that gives hope to those of us who see voting as a right, rather than a privilege, the 5th Circuit Court recently struck down Texas’ highly restrictive voter ID law. According to the Brennan Center for Democracy, the Texas law discriminated against blacks and Hispanics and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Texas ID law is one of the strictest of its kind in the country. It requires voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to the polls. Accepted forms of identification include a driver’s license, a United States passport, a concealed-handgun license and an election identification certificate issued by the State Department of Public Safety.
[Note that, under Texas law, you could use, as proof of identity, your concealed-carry handgun license, but not your state-issued student ID, your voter registration card, or your utility bill.]
According to Think Progress:
The plaintiffs, including individual voters, civil rights groups and the Department of Justice, said it was discriminatory because a far greater share of poor people and minorities do not have these forms of identification and lack easy access to birth certificates or other documents needed to obtain them.
In its ruling, the noted that “the lack of evidence that voter fraud was a threat and cited expert testimony that about 600,000 Texans, mainly poor, black and Hispanic, lacked the newly required IDs and often faced obstacles in obtaining them.”
Previously, a lower court had ruled that the law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote” and blocked its enforcement.
It’s also worth noting that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued the ruling striking down the Texas voter ID requirements, is considered one of the most conservative appeals courts in the country. Apparently, Texas’s rules went too far even for a conservative court. That’s significant.
There’s also some good news on the gerrymandering front. The Florida Supreme Court [recently] ruled that the state legislature’s redistricting plans ahead of next year’s U.S. presidential election are tainted by “unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and its incumbents” and ordered new congressional districts to be redrawn within 100 days.
In a 5-2 decision the court found the GOP’s redistricting process in 2012 violated the the state’s Fair District amendment, enacted two years earlier to safeguard against legislatures redrawing congressional boundaries to give favor to a political party—a process known as gerrymandering.
The judges affirmed a previous ruling by a trial court, which found that Republican “operatives” and political consultants “did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process.”
Eight out of Florida’s 27 congressional districts will be redrawn.
It’s a victory for voting rights, and a precedent-setting decision that could influence future gerrymandering fights.
Susan Goodman, who heads up the Florida League of Women Voters said:
This was the fox guarding the henhouse. In gerrymandered states, lawmakers end up choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their legislators,” Goodman said, adding that the ruling “sets a precedent for many states across the country who are dealing with gerrymandered districts.”
The state court decision follows a similar anti-gerrymandering ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court last month, in which the justices voted 5-4 to uphold an Arizona ballot initiative that took redistricting power away from elected politicians and gave it to a nonpartisan commission.
We’re not there yet
All of these developments are encouraging. But they are only baby steps toward returning our country to the democratic system it could and should be. And they will undoubtedly be staunchly opposed by the cheaters and vote-riggers who think it’s just fine to win elections by denying the vote to their perceived opponents and people whose interests they don’t share or bother to represent.
And it’s cold comfort to know that, even though women there have recently gained the right to vote, at least we’re more advanced than Saudi Arabia.