By Robert Mann
It’s a simple and, perhaps, self-evident notion: “Every election,” the University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato has observed, “is determined by the people who show up.”
Sabato’s dictum is also a window into why – despite several hundred years of struggle to expand voting rights in the United States – some public officials still work to prevent certain people from exercising this fundamental right. It’s simple. Keep your opponents’ voters away from the polls and you win.
From our nation’s founding, we proclaimed, “All men are created equal.” The founders didn’t mean “all,” but they certainly meant “men.” At first, only propertied males could vote. More than 140 years later, women finally won that right. Several generations later, black Americans gained entry to the voting booth with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We included those 18 and older in 1971.
Despite a continual struggle over who can vote, there’s always been the comforting reality that the long trajectory of American history was toward the gradual-but-consistent expansion of the franchise. Sadly, that’s ended, replaced by the gradual-but-persistent shrinking of access to the ballot.
It’s not that Congress and states tell a certain class of people, “You may not vote.” It’s more subtle and nefarious than that. States have instituted new impediments to voting, many targeting minorities and young people, ostensibly aimed at addressing a virtually non-existent “problem” – voter fraud.
Study after study has shown that in-person voter fraud is not a serious issue in the United States. You’ll serve prison time for impersonating another voter. It just isn’t practiced in this country to any significant degree. Even Louisiana’s Republican Secretary of State Tom Schedler says voter fraud is not a problem in Louisiana.
What is practiced in too many places, however, is voter intimidation and suppression under the pretense of eliminating voter fraud. Now, that’s the voter fraud we should worry about. In unguarded moments, numerous Republican officials across the country have admitted their strict voter ID laws are designed to intimidate and suppress the votes of young and minority voters.
But voter ID laws aren’t the only ways we make voting a challenge. The 2013 Supreme Court decision negating Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act means that states may restrict or impede voting in nefarious ways that once required – in eight Southern states and Arizona – U.S. Justice Department preclearance. A bipartisan bill to restore a version of preclearance cannot get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Some states make it difficult for voters to get IDs by closing DMV offices or restricting their operating hours. Fifteen states have no online voter registration. Others, like Texas, don’t allow college students to use their university IDs as proof of identity (Texas does allow a concealed weapon permit). Others restrict voting hours or, as Arizona did recently, reduce the number of polling places in minority areas. In Louisiana and some other states, you cannot register to vote less than 20 or 30 days before an election – just when many voters start paying attention to campaigns.
Speaking of Louisiana, voting is one of the few policy areas where we mostly excel.
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