Get Back the Vote

The United States has made slow, deliberate progress throughout its history to increase the voting franchise. But now, for the second time in our history, the nation is in real danger of moving backward.

In 1776 the right to vote was limited to white men who owned property. Since then, social movements representing particular groups of citizens have mobilized effort after effort to gain the right to vote, gradually expanding the franchise to most of the general population.

Look how far we’ve come: Property ownership requirements fell throughout the 1800s, extending the vote to the (albeit white) working and middle class. African Americans gained the right to vote in 1870 thanks to the 15th amendment, though they saw that right taken away over the course of the 1880s and 1890s during a brutal campaign of intimidation, domestic terrorism, and racist voter suppression legislation perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and its allies. The 19th Amendment codified a woman’s right to vote in 1920. A constitutional amendment banning poll taxes and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought back voting rights to African Americans. Young people ages 18 to 21, who were at the center of the protest movement against the Vietnam War and who were often old enough to fight yet not old enough to vote, gained the franchise as well in 1970.

But with all that, we’re retreading old ground as voters are increasingly being denied the right to vote and the ability to register to vote thanks to measures enacted under the “voter fraud” canard. History shows what a dangerous moment this is. The situation now is not as terrible as it was at the end of Reconstruction — but it is bad, and it’s getting worse.

New Voter Suppression

Over the past two years states have enacted many laws that undermine voting rights. Since the beginning of 2011, 180 bills restricting voting and voter registration have been introduced in 41 states. Over 70 percent of the electoral votes needed to win the 2012 Presidential election will come from states with new restrictive voting laws.

Voter ID laws have passed in seven states, and similar legislation has been introduced in 34 states. As written, these laws will prevent many citizens from voting. A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 11 percent of citizens, or 21 million people, do not have a current photo ID. That percentage increases to 15 percent of low-income voters, 18 percent of seniors, 25 percent of black voters, and 20 percent of young voters.

While these laws might seem harmless to many voters, voter ID requirements have dangerous consequences and often sinister motives. The Advancement Project, an advocacy group of civil rights lawyers, describes the push for voter ID as “the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century.”

For people who work full-time at low-wage jobs, for people with disabilities, and for many seniors who do not drive, it is not easy to obtain photo identification. ID laws present a bewildering maze to those without ID: you need a birth certificate to get a license, but if you don’t have a copy of your birth certificate, you need a license to get it. Seniors unable to drive may be not be able to get to their motor vehicle agency, and long lines could mean giving up a day’s wages. But we anticipate that the greatest effect will be felt among infrequent voters who do not follow the news and who will discover the new requirements only at polls.

Proponents of voter ID laws argue that ID is necessary to avoid voter fraud, but there is no credible evidence that suggests a voting fraud epidemic. For example, evidence from the closely watched 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State reveals that voter fraud happens approximately .0009 percent of the time. The similarly analyzed 2004 election in Ohio revealed a voter fraud rate of .00004 percent. For a little perspective, the National Weather Service data shows that Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often.

And even if voter fraud were a legitimate concern, increasing security of the vote could be met without disenfranchising anyone. One way to do so would be to give election officials the ability to issue ID and register voters on the spot on Election Day. Another would be to have a comprehensive, national ID card provided free of charge to everyone. Mexico provides such an ID to its citizens and succeeds in registering some 95 percent of its citizens.

Disenfranchisement

The voter ID proposals now becoming law around the nation do not disenfranchise people as an unintended consequence. Voter disenfranchisement is a primary goal of these laws. And we don’t need to be coy about why: demographic groups like African Americans and youth tend to vote Democratic, and we’re seeing Republican-led efforts that are imposing requirements that they know many will be unable to meet. Even in states where new voter ID requirements are not yet law, the struggle is very much alive at the local level.

In New Bedford, Mass., individuals seeking to deter potential voters set up a table at a polling place with a sign that read “Show ID to Vote” in large font. Below, it listed polling place “rules” such as “have a valid government issued ID,” “be polite,” “ask poll worker to verify address,” and “voluntary compliance.” Massachusetts does not have voter ID laws. The sign was designed to confuse voters, and, perhaps, intended to convince some of them to leave without voting if they had showed up to vote without ID. While several states have “deceptive practices acts” that clearly make it illegal to purposefully disseminate erroneous information about voter rights, there is no federal law and no Massachusetts law of that kind.

Voters in Southbridge, Mass., were similarly challenged during an April 2011 election for a seat in the state legislature. A billboard near a largely Latino district in Southbridge told voters to “protect the integrity of the vote” and “show ID,” and featured a picture of a white woman holding an identification card. Many said that billboard was placed directly in Latino areas with the intention of intimidating Latino voters, especially newly registered immigrants.

Massachusetts has a reputation as being one of the most liberal states. If voting rights are under attack there, what does that say for the rest of the nation?

Getting Out the Vote

In 2008, some 80 million eligible United States citizens did not vote. This year, the number of eligible citizens who do not vote could be anywhere between 70 and 90 million. While political parties will invest billions in getting out their supporters, there is a major role to be played by nonpartisan community organizations. Many individuals don’t trust politicians. And the techniques favored by most political campaigns — telephone calls and door-to-door canvassing — have significant limitations.

But nonprofits and civic engagement groups work honestly and openly to fix issues that directly affect the community. They can educate, organize, provide services, build leadership, and hold lawmakers accountable. These organizations have the trust of the people and credibility in the community. It is for these reasons that they must spearhead the effort to increase voter participation and civic engagement.

Today, rather than a few giant organizations like ACORN, there are hundreds of small and large nonprofit organizations across the United States that get out the vote. The best of these efforts share certain characteristics:

  • Face-to-face: People are more likely to follow through on promises to vote that they make in person. Phone calls are less effective, and email is even worse. One-on-one, volunteers can help voters make sure their voter registrations are up-to-date and help them make concrete plans to vote, like, “I will vote at Cathedral High School at 7:45 a.m. after I put my kids on the school bus.”
  • Beyond door-to-door: To reach busy working people, nonprofit organizations like churches, food pantries, and community health centers make systematic efforts to talk to their members, clients, and patients about the importance of voting when they come in.
  • Based on research: We now know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting out the vote thanks to a new generation of experimental political scientists including Donald Green of Columbia University and Alan Gerber of Yale University, authors of the book Get Out the Vote. Green measured the effect of voter power discussions and of the Mass Affordable Housing Association’s method of including discussions of voter power and voter registration into first-time homebuyer classes. He found voting increased by 19 percent by those who took the class.
  • Community-led: Rather than parachuting in strangers, strong efforts are organized by trusted community groups that were there long before Election Day and that will stay long after.

Nationally, the resource center Nonprofit Vote provides information and advice to nonprofits ranging from health centers to housing organizations to youth centers about the best ways to get out the vote.

The Path to Stronger Voting Rights

Martin Luther King, Jr. is often quoted as saying “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” At some point, with sufficient organizing, the advancement of voting rights — not just the defense of voting rights — will again become a national priority. But where do we begin when that moment comes?

We could start with our voter registration system. The United States relies on an antiquated voter registration system that wastes money and makes it unnecessarily difficult to vote. The paper-based system is inefficient, sorely lacking in the use of basic information technology, and notorious for purging valid voters from the polls.

The United States registers only 68 percent of its eligible population — that means more than one in four eligible citizens is not registered to vote. That is a national embarrassment. A registration rate of 68 percent pales in comparison to industrialized democracies around the world. Great Britain registers 97 percent of its eligible voters. New Zealand registers 96 percent. France registers 91 percent.

America’s northern neighbor, Canada, could serve as a model for registration modernization. In many ways, the two nations are similar. Each is a longstanding representative democracy with no mandatory voting or voter registration. Yet Canada’s streamlined system, the National Register of Electors, efficiently registers 93 percent of all eligible Canadians. Different government agencies, including the motor vehicles agency, the National Postal Service, and the Federal Tax Authority, provide names and addresses to the Canadian Register’s database, which then merges the lists and purges the duplicates to create an up-to-date list of registered voters. Since moving to its current system, Canada has saved 30 million Canadian dollars each election cycle.

The international trend is toward registration modernization. And while reform has begun in the United States, its roots are young and shallow. Ten states allow people to register online. Eight states allow same-day registration. Eight states allow pre-registration of teens before they turn 18.

State by state, the 2012 elections may create the condition for positive reforms. In Connecticut, advocates passed Election Day registration early this year, thanks to the strong support of former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz (now a Senatorial candidate). In Massachusetts, a coalition of 50 local organizations succeeded in winning a pledge from state administrators that voter registration forms would be posted online in time for the elections.

However, the only way to protect voters nationwide is with federal legislation. This past spring, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, (D-Georgia), introduced the Voter Empowerment Act (VEA) with over 100 cosponsors. Like the election reform package moving in Massachusetts, the federal bill is designed to modernize our voter registration system and ensure equal access to the ballot box for all Americans.

VEA modernizes voter registration by using existing technology to automatically and permanently enroll consenting eligible voters, while making sure this information is accurate and secure. In short, the bill orders states to create voter registration lists the way that they currently create their list of eligible citizens for jury service: by putting together many easily available government lists, removing any duplicates, and updating the list regularly to add in new people and keep up when people move. The bill would authorize online registration and same day registration and simplify the registration process for military personnel serving overseas.

VEA would also ensure the integrity of elections by providing funds to better train poll workers and set standards for polling place practices. Deceptive practices and intimidation at polling places, like what happened in New Bedford and Southbridge, would be strictly prohibited.

Lastly, VEA would protect the sacred accountability of elections. The bill would create a national voter hotline to report issues at polling places, and it would mandate random audits of paper ballots to ensure that vote counts are accurate.

This bill is not revolutionary. It’s common sense. It would establish simple steps to ensure that every citizen can vote. In introducing the bill, Lewis explained “Congress should be moving towards a more inclusive democracy, not one that locks people out.” We need to push legislation like the Voter Empowerment Act to make sure it does just that.

It is clear that a change needs to happen in the arena of voter rights, and fast. The up side is that we’re not limited to one solution when it comes to fighting back against all these restrictions that have been placed on our right to vote. Change needs to come from both big game-changing legislation in Congress, and from the grassroots — small nonprofits who can connect with the people. If the American people do not come together and fight these threats to our civil liberties, we risk giving up one of the most treasured and fundamental rights of this great nation.

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