In his State of the Union address, President Obama voiced a deep hope held among Latino and many other American voters: the need for a better politics “where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears…where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles.” That was the preface to a list of issues our country needs to address, and chief among them is protecting the right to vote.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which has been reauthorized four times, including under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and with support from both parties. That spirit of collaboration is now needed once again. The Voting Rights Act requires preclearance of changes to voting laws or practices in certain jurisdictions that have a record of discrimination. In 2006, it was reauthorized for 25 more years. However, in 2013 the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder struck down the formula that determines which jurisdictions are subject to pre-clearance, leaving Congress to design an updated formula. To date a new formula remains absent.
But while Congress has not acted, the same cannot be said of a number of jurisdictions. No longer required to prove that voting practices do not engender racial discrimination, several jurisdictions rushed to change their laws. On the same day the Shelby decision was announced, for example, Texas implemented a voter ID law that had been previously blocked by preclearance requirements.
While only two incidents of voter fraud have been documented in the last 14 years, the state passed one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation, in spite of evidence that it could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible voters. Interestingly, while Texas accepts a concealed handgun license for voting purposes, it rejects student identifications.
Voter integrity has been a hot topic of debate in recent electoral cycles, and it reaches a boil particularly around election time. Here’s the thing: state and local actions for the most part have been about imposing additional restrictions to the franchise, such as requiring certain forms of ID, but not about ensuring that all eligible Americans have easier access to the voting booth. All this even though, as in the case of Texas, voter fraud has been rare or unproven by many of the jurisdictions that enacted these laws. We believe that voter fraud is wrong and should be addressed; it is also rare and does not warrant laws that are likely to deny thousands of legitimate voters their sacred right to vote.
Voter ID laws are but one of many ways that some jurisdictions have belittled the voice of voters. Many voters are being subjected to restrictions on nonpartisan group voter registration, cuts in early voting periods or polling locations, changes from single-member to at-large districts, allowances for larger amounts of undisclosed money to pour into elections, and other measures. We are getting dangerously close to a system in which politicians can choose their voters—not the other way around. That not only devalues voters, it devalues our system of government.
We think it’s time for a serious discussion about voter integrity, and for Congress to continue the bipartisan tradition of upholding the franchise. May the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches serve as the inspiration we need, to remind us that the best way to honor the work and sacrifice of so many is to ensure that equal access to the voting booth remains unhindered.