I recently visited Russia, where a mild-mannered historian from the city of Astrakhan, Oleg Shein, is on a hunger strike protesting a stolen mayoral election he believes he won. But as Russia starves for free and fair elections, Republicans across the United States are starving our democracy — and too few have noticed. And their furious assault on voting rights is no less destructive to democracy than the vote-rigging we deplore in Russia.
Over the past year, Republican legislators in 34 states have proposed legislation that would drastically restrict voting for an estimated 5 million eligible voters. Seven states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo ID — which more than one in 10 Americans lacks — and dozens of others have eliminated early voting, disenfranchised ex-felons or limited the ability of civic organizations to register voters. The consequences are clear in Texas, for example, where you can now register to vote with a handgun license but not a college ID.
Unsurprisingly, the most affected demographics — blacks, Latinos, young people and the elderly — skew Democratic. NAACP President Ben Jealous has called such moves “the greatest coordinated legislative attack on voting rights since the dawn of Jim Crow,” and the Nation has teamed up with Colorlines.com to monitor and report on voter suppression among the most vulnerable groups.
Twelve years after Bush v. Gore, Florida is again leading the effort to subvert the democratic process. Last May, Florida’s Republican legislature — a wholly-owned subsidiary of the right-wing policy group the American Legislative Exchange Council — passed draconian voter restrictions that, among other things, cut in half the number of early voting days and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.
Under the new law, a high school government teacher who registered her eligible students as a citizenship exercise was fined $1,000. Her crime? Narrowly missing the 48-hour window to submit registration forms. Among the well-meaning community groups deterred from registering voters are Florida’s local Boy Scout troops.
These egregious restrictions bury voter registration drives in so much red tape that the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote have pulled their laudable registration programs in Florida for fear of being fined. Both are suing the state for civil rights violations. But the law is working. Compared with the same period in 2008, 81,000 fewer Floridians have registered to vote.
Supporters of these partisan and discriminatory restrictions cling to the fiction that they target fraud. Yet according to careful analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, actual instances of deliberate fraud are rare to the point of absurdity. An individual is more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate another voter, and there have been more reported UFO sightings than allegations of voter fraud. But we can all breathe a sigh of relief; the laws are filtering out such nefarious characters as a former Tennessee congressman and a handful of elderly nuns in Indiana.
Instead of disingenuously appropriating the rhetoric of voting rights to appropriate the rights themselves, we should ensure that the right to vote — for which many have died, and without which, as President Lyndon B. Johnson noted, “all others are meaningless” — truly means something. We must not only fight attempts to limit the franchise, we must fight to expand the franchise, as pro-democracy reformers have repeatedly done throughout our history.
One way to achieve that goal is universal voter registration, which would automatically register any citizen already in government databases; make registration portable whenever voters change names or addresses; and provide a means to correct registration errors at the polls on Election Day.
Americans should be not just allowed, but encouraged, to help determine the country’s direction. Tragically, roughly 70 million eligible Americans — a third of potential voters — are unregistered. Citizens in households earning less than $20,000 are nearly twice as likely to be unregistered as those earning more than $100,000.The implications of that inequality are evident in the decades of Wall Street calling the shots and looting the nation.
Conservative critics charge that universal registration will lead to a free-for-all where non-citizens and cold-blooded convicts pile into polling stations and tarnish the process. This trumped-up outrage has intimidated Congress into inaction.
But as pilot efforts at the state level have shown, a universal system would actually reduce fraud, while saving millions of dollars and expanding the ranks of our democracy. Universal registration would truly be, as Brennan Center president Michael Waldman has said, “potentially the most significant improvement since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Democracy is a contest of ideas. Political parties should win because they persuade citizens to vote, not because they prohibit them from doing so.