Democracy is based on the power of the people choosing their leaders in a secret ballot. The right to vote is central to the legitimacy of any democratic system. Yet in the United States Constitution there is no federal right to vote. Voting rights are determined by the states. And in the states we witness a fierce struggle between those who seek to suppress the vote and those who seek to protect and extend it.
After the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the push to suppress the vote spread across the country, pushed by conservative and Republican activists. By 2010, as the Brennan Center for Justice reports, hundreds of harsh voter suppression measures were introduced in states across the country.
Twenty states proceeded to pass new restrictions on voting. They required more restrictive photo IDs, made it harder to register, cut early voting days and hours, banned Sunday voting and made it harder to restore voting rights after criminal convictions. In 2016, 14 states had new restrictions in place for the presidential election, including Ohio and Wisconsin. With the election decided by some 77,000 votes in three states, including Wisconsin, voter suppression had a direct impact on the outcome. In 2017, Arkansas and North Dakota passed new voter ID laws; Georgia, Iowa, Indiana and New Hampshire passed more restrictions. The deregistration drive is still on the march in Republican dominated states.
Even as deregistration has continued, a new reform — automatic voter registration — is strengthening the right to vote in some states. Ten states and the District of Columbia have passed versions of AVR; 32 state legislatures have had the measure introduced this year. Under AVR, eligible voters are registered automatically when they interact with a state agency, unless they opt out. Their registration information is automatically transferred to election officials. In the best versions of the law, they remain registered if they move in state, and they can register or update their information at the polls. Oregon, the first state to pass this reform in 2015, has witnessed a dramatic increase in voter participation. If AVR spreads nationally, according to the Brennan Center, an estimated 50 million eligible voters would be added to the rolls.
Donald Trump and his Department of Justice under former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions have thrown their weight on the side of deregistration. Trump, embarrassed by losing the popular vote in the presidential election, has set up a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, essentially tasked with finding — or inventing — cases of fraudulent voting to justify further restrictions on voting. Sessions’ DOJ has dropped prior federal opposition to a Texas voter ID law that a federal court ruled intentionally discriminated against black and Latino voters. It has reversed prior opposition to a blatantly illegal Ohio effort to purge tens of thousands from the voter rolls for voting infrequently.
Voter suppression has a long and shameful history in America. Initially, only white male property owners could vote. Women had to fight for the right to vote. The segregated South made suppression the black vote an art form. Only with the civil rights movement — and after bloody Sunday in Selma — did the Voting Rights Act pass to protect against discriminatory laws. When the right-wing gang of five had a majority on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion gutting the Voting Rights Act, to his lasting shame. That opened the floodgates for voter suppression laws, racially biased gerrymandering and more. Republicans clearly fear making voting easily accessible to working men and women, college students, minorities and the poor.
This is a continuing disgrace and an international embarrassment. The United States should make the right to vote a constitutional right. Registration should be automatic, ensuring accuracy and saving money. Voting should be facilitated, not restricted, with accessible polling booths, many days of early voting with polls open for extended hours, a national holiday for voting on Election Day. Those convicted of crimes, having served their sentences, should be returned to full citizenship. We should return to paper ballots and ensure a proper count that can’t be rigged.
This should be a cause that is above partisan politics. It goes to the very legitimacy of our leaders. It concerns the strength and the resilience of our democracy. We need statesmen and women in both parties who will come together to strengthen the right to vote. We need a renewed citizen movement to defend and extend the right to vote. And we need to expose and shame the corporations and the wealthy interests that are funding the efforts to suppress the vote. This is too serious to be left to partisan politics as usual.