The whole basis of our democracy is government “by the people, for the people.” And the mechanism for making sure everyone has an equal voice? That’s voting — each citizen's right to head to the polls to cast a ballot for the candidate for their choice. Race, religion, gender and economic status shouldn’t matter one bit when it comes to one of our most basic American rights.
Unfortunately, it’s never been that simple. From voter restrictions that discriminate against certain races and groups, to the crazy effect of unchecked campaign finance spending, the scales of voting equality are way off-kilter these days.
We think ensuring this fundamental right for every eligible American is crucial to maintaining the robust diversity that defines our nation— and to creating a future where prosperity isn’t defined by how many millions you have in the bank. Here’s how certain groups are being edged out of this picture, and what Americans everywhere are doing to ensure voter participation doesn’t become the biggest problem our democracy has faced.
The Voting Rights Act: A Pint-Sized History
It’s crazy to imagine today, but people of color weren’t allowed to vote until 1870, and full voting rights for women weren’t achieved until 1920. But the matter of race was so divisive that, for nearly a century, black voters suffered everything from crude violence to bureaucratic taxes and unpassable tests as states worked to block them from casting their ballots.
When the Voting Rights Act (VRA) passed in 1965, it became a historic piece of legislation and a key piece of the Civil Rights movement. The VRA ended discriminatory practices like literacy tests, but its strongest power, Section 5, mandated states with histories of these practices submit any new changes to their election procedures for federal review. The result was immediate and profound across the American political landscape: in states with the most racially-biased voter disenfranchisement, black voter registration nearly doubled over the next two years.
The VRA was a success, and was even re-authorized for another 25 years in 2006. That flipped in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down the section of the act designating which states needed to have their election procedure changes reviewed by the federal government— without that designation, Section 5 is now essentially useless.
Why We Still Need the Voting Rights Act
Even as the majority ruling declared, “things have changed dramatically” in the South, we’re seeing voter restrictions thrown up in many of the same states that had federal oversight under Section 5 of the VRA. The extra cost and confusion of voter ID laws, for example, have been shown to have a disproportionate impact on black and young voters, groups which are less likely to already have state-issued identification. Early voting and same-day registration restrictions also impact working-class minorities whose working hours already put a crimp on when they can vote. Add in polling places with fewer voting machines or poll workers, and it’s no surprise studies show black and minority groups wait up to twice as long as whites to vote. Here’s the latest pending and passed legislation from the battleground states limiting access to vote:
- Alabama: An effort to shutter DMV offices in counties with a high black population has been taking place since early October
- Florida: Restrictions have been put in place on early voting, voting with felony conviction and more
- North Carolina: A restrictive 2013 law is being challenged by the US Department of Justice for a whole host of restrictions that would disproportionately affect minority voters
- North Dakota: Passed legislation to limit the valid forms of ID that could be presented at polling places
- Ohio: Shortened the absentee voting period, eliminating the week when registration and voting could happen simultaneously
- Texas: Passed bill that require voters show photo ID
The VRA hasn’t been completely destroyed. But its ability to mandate that states submit new election procedures for federal preclearance has been stripped. Now, individual plaintiffs have to bring a case to court, and bear the burden of proof if they want to oppose these restrictions. Yikes, that’s not fair.
What States With Vision are Doing to Help
Yes, this is some pretty overwhelming stuff, but not every state is moving in reverse. In fact, several larger states including Oregon and California are shifting voter participation into high gear with legislation designed to build voter registration into DMV activities like obtaining or renewing a driver's license or a state identification card. California is anticipating this so-called “motor voter” initiative to add millions of new registered voters by 2018. The Oregon legislation isn’t expected to add the same number of voters as California’s, but the mechanism it uses— automatically registering and then giving people the option to opt out, instead of asking them to opt in— is being heralded as revolutionary.
Meanwhile, key states like Florida and Iowa have joined a majority of other US states in embracing electronic registration. Check out the breakdown of state-by-state voter registration modernization here, and a map of state-by-state disenfranchisement laws here.
Voting rights are a civil rights issue, plain and simple. Moreover, they’re a democracy issue. How can we claim to be a representative government if certain groups are blocked from voting based on their race, or have their voice drowned out by the millions of dollars of influence swamping Capitol Hill? Our future prosperity depends on how well we can integrate and harness the diversity of our country, and that starts with ensuring the most basic freedom of the right to vote. Let’s work together to make sure that voter participation isn’t a problem, but a foundation for what makes America as great – and inclusive - a nation as it can be.