For Release Sunday, October 7, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group
There was a time when Americans couldn’t vote unless they were “freeholders” with substantial property holdings. Or if they were black. Or if they were women. Or if they weren’t at least 21 years of age (not 18, as today).
Generations struggled to expand the franchise. We even fought a Civil War over the issue of freedom and rights for our African-American population. We passed constitutional amendments to secure the vote. Jim Crow laws and lynchings in the South finally led us to undertake the 20th-century great civil rights revolution, culminating in the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.
So what are we witnessing in 2012? Tea party-affiliated followers of the group called “True the Vote” are promising to field as many as 1 million activists to challenge voters at the polls. The scarcely hidden target: voters in heavily black and Hispanic precincts, plus liberally oriented student communities. By tying up the polling places, even with frivolous claims, the harassers may be able, in many cases, to cause long lines and discourage voting among groups they view as political adversaries.
But the voter suppression strategy runs even deeper. Buoyed by victories in the 2010 midterm elections, Republican governors and GOP-controlled legislatures began passing laws requiring government-issued photo identification at the polls – even in the face of surveys showing that as many as 21 million Americans lack such identification. Other states required birth certificates to prove identity for registrations. Texas and Tennessee excluded student I.D.s to prove citizenship, even while allowing a permit for concealed gun ownership as proof.
A chief source of the laws: model statutes circulated to legislators by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – the same group that pushed the genre of “Stand Your Ground” statutes that led to the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
ALEC has taken a public relations beating for its role in pushing extremist laws. It has closed its public safety and elections task force. Forty companies have canceled their ALEC memberships, including such heavies as Blue Cross Blue Shield, General Electric, Sprint Nextel, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, Intuit and Coca-Cola.
Justice Department suits under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have stymied parts of the restrictive new laws in Florida, Texas and South Carolina. State court orders have effectively barred the use of the restrictive rules for next month’s election in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But the laws remain substantially in effect and could sway the outcome of the presidential vote in some 13 states, ranging from Iowa to Tennessee, Virginia to Arizona.
Yet why these statutes, with the likelihood of voter intimidation? Actual voter impersonation is extraordinarily rare: Why risk a conviction to cast one extra vote out of thousands, or millions? In two Texas elections in which 13 million votes were cast, there were just five complaints about voter impersonation.
Positive news is that a phalanx of nonprofits is fighting to control the suppression. Among them are Common Cause and Demos – authors of a new report: “Bullies at the Ballot Box” – as well as the League of Women Voters, the Advancement Project (mostly for communities of color), Rock the Vote (pro-youth vote), the NAACP and the “Election Protection” network.
But after Election Day, where do we head? How can America, claiming global leadership for democracy, tolerate voter suppression? Why does our voter turnout look so sickly compared to other democracies? The villains are clearly registration and eligibility hurdles.
So why not reform – radically? One approach would be Canada’s, where officials check tax rolls and other records for a continuously updated eligibility list.
Or why not go further and declare every American citizen registered and eligible at age 18? Invite all to come to the polls and sign a simple statement giving full name (and earlier names, as in maiden names). Then affirm they are citizens (native-born or naturalized), date of birth, and current address (even it’s a homeless shelter). Then, to vote, require each person to attest to the correctness of all that information under penalty of law.
I happen to like proposals to make Saturday (not Tuesday, a workday) our official voting day. And I like broad permission for early voting.
But most of all, we need to finish the work of our too-slow but essential American experiment of expanding the franchise to all our citizens. We should be urging the Congress elected this November to write such a system into law.
Could there be security issues under such a system? Perhaps. Careful monitoring, rigorous procedures to identify ineligible voting, would be in order. But we could hold our heads high and send a mental signal back to Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president:
“Mr. Lincoln, We’ve finally created the American government you dreamed of – ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’ And not just for some of us, but all of us.”
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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