The lead editorial in The New York Times on June 5, 2015 sounded the alarm once more to arouse Americans to the dangerous suppression of their voting rights. We are now in the pre -2016 presidential election months. An increasing number of Republican candidates are entering the race every day; Hillary Clinton is the favorite for the Democratic nomination. Will voters be waiting for hours in long lines as they did in 2012? What is the status of Photo ID laws, fewer early voting days and other means of voter suppression in the states? Finally, why is the United States ranked 20th out of 21 established democracies around the globe in voter participation?
The last question is the place to begin sorting out answers. The United States is one of the few countries that requires citizens to register to vote. In most democracies, the government is pro-active to make sure all eligible voters are on the electoral rolls. They have installed a form of automatic and permanent registration for citizens who reach voting age. Voila! When one turns eighteen, if that is the required age, one is automatically registered to vote. The census is used to create the voting lists in France, Germany, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. They also use direct mailings and door-to-door drives to create lists. Recent census figures in the United States reveal that 30 percent of eligible voters -about 50 million people –are not registered to vote.
The official election day in the United States is just one day, the first Tuesday in November. Congress originally scheduled federal elections on Tuesday because it worked best for farmers and Sabbath observers. That’s the tradition that has lasted into the 21st century. Does this decision formed in an agrarian society make sense in our complex industrialized nation? What adjustments have already been made to give citizens more opportunity to vote? And what changes would increase citizen participation at the polls? What have been the opposing forces for increasing versus suppressing participation?
During the 2008 presidential election, 32 states had installed early voting or absentee voting, resulting in a record number of votes cast. Nationwide, the estimate was that one third of all registered voters had cast their ballots before Election Day, November 4. The southern and western states, California, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, were ahead of the northeastern states in offering early voting. Oregon had mail-in ballots only. Certain states that instituted election day registration saw close to ten percent higher registration. Motor voter registration increased participation in those states where offices served as a place to register. The length of the ballot also affected participation. Certain states like California which may have pages of referenda and initiatives may turn voters off when they receive their sample ballots in the mail.
Same day registration and early voting with more days to choose from increases participation. Less time constraints on workers would be an important improvement for all Americans. Changing the election day from Tuesday to the weekend would eliminate job conflicts for millions of voters. Historically in state legislatures, the Democratic party has been in favor of expanding voter registration opportunities while the Republican party has backed the growth of voter ID laws to stop alleged voter fraud at the polls. In 2005, Indiana passed the country’s strictest law, requiring that the voter ID meet four criteria to be acceptable– a driver’s license, a passport, a state issued ID or some other government issued photo ID. The law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Indiana Democratic Party in the courts, It was eventually declared “constitutional” by the Supreme Court despite the fact that there had never been a case of voter impersonation fraud proven in Indiana.
In May, 2015, Democrats filed lawsuits in Ohio and Wisconsin, presidential battleground states, against voter identification requirements and restrictions like time limits on early voting. They are launching a nationwide legal battle l7 months before the presidential election in November 2016. Other target states include Georgia, Nevada and Virginia. A similar law suit was begun last year in North Carolina. Almost all of the states involved have growing African-American and Hispanic populations whose rights Democrats say could be harmed by voting rights restrictions. Hillary Clinton spoke on June 4, 2015 at Texas Southern University in Houston, a historically black college where she focused on voting rights as a broad civil rights issue. In a strong and powerful speech , she called for universal and automatic voter registration for all American citizens when they reached eighteen years of age. Oregon came closest in March when it passed a law automatically registering eligible citizens with a drivers license. Since then fourteen states have enacted similar proposals to put the responsibility of registration on the government rather than on individuals.
Hillary Clinton called for at least 20 days of early voting nationwide, including evenings and weekends. Fourteen states still do not offer early voting, and crucial swing states like Ohio and Florida have cut back the days and hours. She singled out laws in Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin which voting rights groups say limit participation especially among minorities, the poor and younger voters who usually vote for Democrats. She also called for an increase in on-line voter registration and restated her position that nearly six million former felons should have their voting rights restored. She condemned the Supreme Court’s striking down the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act which opened the way for states to pass the photo ID laws and other restrictive regulations. She called on Congress to re-enact parts of the law.
Hillary Clinton also criticized her potential Republican rivals, Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas and Jeb Bush of Florida whose states have enacted voter suppression laws. According to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, there are fourteen states with new restrictive voter laws in place for the first time in a national race. The lawsuits being filed are on behalf of citizens who say they have been, or could be disenfranchised. At the end of her speech, Hillary Clinton called upon Republicans “ at all levels of government, with all manner of ambition, to stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud.” She deplored voter suppression as “a sweeping effort to dis-empower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people and young people from one end of our country to the other.” Her succinct closing line was, “We should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote.”