Over half a century ago, as part of his landmark Great Society agenda, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in order to guarantee the elimination of racial discrimination in voting.
It resulted in a dramatic increase in voter registration among African-Americans and has been considered the most effective civil rights law in history. That is, until the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder declared some clauses of it to be unconstitutional.
Now, states, including those with long histories of voter discrimination, are no longer required to secure approval from the federal government before they write changes to voting procedures. The 2016 presidential election was the first without full protection of the Voting Rights Act, and it was marked not by record-breaking turnout but by first-time voter suppression laws in 15 states. It’s past time to get serious about restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act; to be sure, voter suppression is one of the great civil rights problems of our time.
In the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, many Republican-controlled state legislatures have made efforts to pass laws to significantly confine eligible voters’ ability to cast ballots. Many reduce early voting, eliminate same-day voter registration and impose strict identification requirements.
While these laws do not explicitly reduce voting rights based on race or ethnicity, they often present significant obstacles for people of color, the elderly and low-income individuals and have been empirically proven to reduce voter registration and turnout to a degree that must be reckoned with. For example, according to a study conducted by Priorities USA, a progressive advocacy group, strict voter-ID laws in Wisconsin may have reduced turnout by 200,000 voters. President Trump won the state by only 22,748 votes. In addition, a Kansas law requiring proof of citizenship when registering to vote has caused voter registration drives to become all but impossible. Who carries their birth certificate to the farmer’s market?
Many of these laws have been presented under the pretense of protecting election integrity and preventing voter fraud. After conducting an investigative project while working as an intern for the PBS NewsHour this summer, I know that voter fraud is all but nonexistent and does not influence elections in any significant way.
Terry Goddard, the former attorney general of Arizona, told me in an interview that in eight years he only uncovered one or two cases of voter fraud. “If voter fraud is their rationale and no fraud exists, then the new ‘voter protection’ obstacles they want will put us back in the same thicket that the courts encountered in the fifties when there were reading tests and Constitutional exams to keep blacks from voting in the South,” he told me.
Trump is no friend to suppressed voters. The vice chairman of his bogus Election Integrity Committee, Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, has been sued four times by the American Civil Liberties Union for implementing voter laws that restrict the electorate from expanding and shifting demographically. The president himself has falsely claimed countless times that millions of fraudulent voters cost him the popular vote. Thus, lawmakers who are serious about restoring full rights to the electorate face a stiff headwind. But if we as a country are serious about the Enlightenment ideal that our country was founded on, that every individual should be trusted to think for her- or himself, we will move against that headwind.
What steps could lawmakers take to facilitate a more open, accessible and democratic system? The possibilities are not difficult to imagine. High school students could be automatically registered to vote as they approach their 18th birthdays. Voter identification laws could be loosened, and it could become the government’s responsibility rather than the individual’s to ensure that every eligible voter has some form of ID. Obtaining an identification takes time and money.If someone is forced to obtain an ID that they only use for voting, that is a poll tax by another name.
Furthermore, there is no reason for Election Day to take place on a Tuesday, when many people cannot afford to miss work. Voting should take place on federal holidays or weekends, with ample access to absentee voting without a requirement to provide an acceptable excuse. Before I could cast my vote for the next governor of Virginia by absentee ballot, I had to prove that I was a college student living outside of the Commonwealth.
Anyone should have the ability to vote by mail if they choose to do so. Expanded early voting and even online voting should be explored. Congress should also pass legislation to shore up the Voting Rights Act after the damage caused by Shelby County v. Holder in order to increase the transparency of changes to election rules. Ultimately, a robust amendment protecting the right to vote should be added to the Constitution.
It is a sad mark of our times that the policies I’ve suggested would likely be seen as disruptive and partisan. As long as Republicans—who dominate many state legislatures—cling to the idea that disenfranchising minorities and low-income individuals would help their electoral outcomes, reforms such as these are unlikely to become law, but we can have elections that are simultaneously free and open and fair and honest; the choices aren’t mutually exclusive as some politicians are quick to suggest. Our free and fair yet flawed elections are what voted those legislators into office. With some serious work, an even freer and fairer election could vote them out.