The right to vote is fundamental to American democracy – but in recent years, many states have seen that right threatened. Modernizing our election systems and making it more convenient to register and vote will help ensure that all voices are heard.
The right to vote is a cornerstone of American democracy. Every citizen should have a voice in his or her community and in policymaking decisions. This requires a political system in which all voices are heard, and elected leaders listen and respond. If our communities continue to hit barriers to voting, we will continue to elect leaders who focus on the wealthy few. However, if we are able to modernize our election systems and make it more convenient to register and vote, our elected leaders will better reflect the entire community they serve.
Since 2002, states have introduced hundreds of bills making it harder for ordinary citizens to vote, including new photo ID requirements based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Many state legislatures have cut back on early voting and tried to eliminate same-day registration. Following the 2010 midterm elections, conservative legislators with new majorities passed a wave of regressive bills in states across the country – preventing Americans from voting and dramatically increasing the power of the one percent to buy elections and drown out the people’s voices. From 2011 to 2015, legislators introduced 395 new voting restrictions in 49 states. And in 2015, at least 113 restrictive voting and registration laws were proposed, passed, or carried over in 33 states. Alabama – the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act – passed a strict voter ID law and then closed 31 DMV offices in the state in areas that disproportionately affect communities of color.
Democracy is most effective when as many people as possible are involved and actively participate.”
And yet there are solutions as well. The past several years have seen a significant increase in election modernization policies throughout the country. Spurred by new technology and new ideas, policies like online voter registration, same-day registration, automatic voter registration, mail ballot delivery, and vote centers have passed in a number of states. Along with removing barriers to registration and expanding early voting and vote-by-mail, states have passed a number of other reforms which expand the electorate, increase participation, and protect the fundamental right to vote. These include registration portability, so that when voters move within a state, their registration automatically follows. Also included are expanded access to mail ballots; pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds; a high school civics education that gives all Americans a basic grounding in how their democracy operates; and the restoration of voting rights to nearly 6 million Americans living in our communities who have paid their dues and been released by the justice system, but who are denied a voice in our democracy due to a prior felony conviction.
This should not be a partisan issue, although some would try to make it one. These are common-sense, good government policies that often save taxpayer money and protect the integrity of voters’ ballots – which is why they have passed with strong bipartisan majorities in many states. In the spring of 2016, for instance, the Vermont legislature enacted automatic voter registration with near-unanimous support. Online voter registration is now available in one form or another in 34 states, a proliferation that happened nearly overnight by legislative standards.
Individuals, communities, and our American democratic system all benefit when more people are able to participate in the simple yet powerful act of voting. As a country, we should strive to remove barriers and increase access to voting for all Americans – especially for new Americans, young Americans, and historically disenfranchised Americans. States have demonstrated the ways in which we impoverish democracy when we create barriers to the ballot box, but they have also shown how modernizing our systems and increasing voter access can enrich democracy.