Bring Back the Right to Vote as it Was a Few Years Ago

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by James C. Harrington

Director, Texas Civil Rights Project

In the not too distant past, America did much to make it easier for people to vote.  The national government passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act to undo the vestiges and practices of voter suppression based on race and ethnicity; state and local governments instituted early voting, facilitated absentee ballots, lengthened polling hours, and made electoral registration as easy as mailing a postcard.

Expanding the franchise has been long and painstaking, extending back more than a hundred years.  The15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution started off this tedious process in 1870, enfranchising men, regardless of race (although Jim Crow undermined that right). It then took 50 years to establish the same right for women, with the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Carmen Limas, LUPE - RGV

Carmen Limas of LUPE – Rio Grande Valley (lupergv.wordpress.com)

Voting is the most important action we do as Americans.  Elections are how we fashion our society, set our values, and govern ourselves. Some countries are so committed to democratic participation that voting is mandatory.

Yet, in the last few years, politicians have moved to make voting more difficult, reversing decades of progress.  We have seen a pattern of voter-suppression laws and actions across the land. These methods are aimed at certain groups of people, whose interests would be significantly different from those in power.  But denying the franchise is un-American.  We all have to live by what the majority speaks, and we must do all we can to have as many speak as possible.

Since 2011, 19 states have passed laws to make voting more difficult.  Thirteen states now require voter ID, six of them with very strict laws.  Altogether, these ID laws affect 10 percent of the electorate.  Six states have reduced early voting; and six states have tightened voter registration laws, making it more difficult for groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to conduct registration drives.

The argument is that this is to control fraud, although in reality there are extraordinarily few incidents of fraud, and absolutely none on any large-scale.

Not only is there scant evidence of voter fraud, but those who rail against this make-believe reality show little concern about paperless balloting.  E-voting is fraught with error and the real possibility of hacking and manipulation, as has happened already in numerous polling places around the country.  Nor without a paper trail can there be a recount, if needed.  E-voting is far greater threat to electoral integrity than any voter fraud.

There are other dangers to elections.  The Citizens United Supreme Court decision unleashed a torrent of money so that millionaires and corporations shamelessly far outspend the average citizen and now can tell their employees how they should vote.

Some $2 billion has gone into the 2012 presidential campaign so far, with more to come.  This grossly disproportionate power endangers and undermines a democracy. And that money could have been better spent on educating kids, setting up job skills training, improving medical care in the poor and rural areas of our nation, and so on.

If we want a democracy that works and flourishes, we have to reverse course and facilitate voting for everyone.  Early balloting, weekend-end voting, and same-day registration are all worthy of strengthening.  We might even consider a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and limit campaigns to 60 days, as do many countries.

We need to return to encouraging and assisting people to vote, not impede them.  Our democracy depends on it.

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