The past week has seen some real pushback against the wave of new voting laws that has recently swept across the country. To recap, since the beginning of 2011, 21 new voting laws have passed in 16 states. Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, often of a type that as many as 1 in 10 voters do not have. Other states have cut back on early voting, a hugely popular innovation used by millions of Americans. Two states reversed earlier reforms and once again disenfranchised millions who have past criminal convictions but who are now taxpaying members of the community. Still others made it more difficult for citizens to register to vote, a prerequisite for voting.
The Brennan Center has estimated that it could be significantly more difficult for 5 million Americans to cast ballots in 2012.
Not all of these restrictions will survive legal scrutiny. This week in Florida, a federal judge is considering whether to block a law that places multiple restrictions on community-based voter registration drives. Already, the Department of Justice, in a separate lawsuit, opposed Florida’s law. And on Monday, the DOJ rejected a voter ID law in Texas (after blocking South Carolina’s law in December), and a judge ruled that Wisconsin’s voter ID law violated the state constitution.
Many of the legal challenges focus on who is disproportionately harmed by these new restrictions: specifically, the young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. After tremendous progress for equality and civil rights over the last century, it feels like the clock is being turned back. President Bill Clinton is among a number of commentators who have likened the phenomenon to the “Jim Crow” laws of the old South. Ostensibly intended to prevent voter fraud — something the Brennan Center and others have repeatedly shown is not a real problem — the legislation we’re seeing today will make it harder for certain groups of citizens, including elderly, minority and low-income Americans, to participate in the political process.
Instead of making voting more difficult, we should be working to improve actual flaws in our electoral system, like our outdated voter registration system. That system wastes millions of dollars and keeps a large percentage of Americans out of the political process. Error-ridden voter rolls are a leading cause of disenfranchisement in every election. If we modernized this system, by, for example, automating the registration process at places like departments of motor vehicles and social service agencies, we could ensure that voter records are accurate and up to date. This could expand the franchise to more than 65 million Americans who are not currently registered, while reducing any risk of fraud.
We should look to take the politics out of election administration, so that it is once again about making voting work, rather than keeping people from the polls.