Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unveiled a sweeping anti-corruption proposal intended to restrict the influence of money on politicians. It would ban presidents, Cabinet members and members of Congress from becoming lobbyists; make all meetings with lobbyists public; and require by law the release of tax returns of all presidential candidates.
Warren’s ambitious proposal is only the latest initiative from potential Democratic presidential candidates. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) has called for marijuana legalization; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) has embraced a federal jobs guarantee; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who caucuses with the Democrats — and everyone else have come out for Medicare-for-all. Everyone is looking to rally the base and to set policy priorities for the next time Democrats are able to enact policy.
Health care, jobs, cannabis policy and corruption are all important topics. But there’s one issue that is arguably more vital than all of them that has gotten little attention: voting rights.
The policies that Warren and her colleagues want to enact may be popular, but too many of those who embrace these ideals are unable to vote for them. Money in politics can subvert the popular will, as Warren says. But nothing undermines democracy like simply getting rid of democracy altogether. Any progressive agenda must begin by ensuring that the people who support it can have a voice in their government. Yet, even though disenfranchisement has hobbled the Democratic agenda it has received little high-profile policy attention.
It’s not that Democrats have ignored voting rights altogether. While he was in office, President Barack Obama denounced voter ID laws requiring voters to show driver’s licenses or other identification at the polls, effectively disenfranchising many poor and minority voters. Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) undertook a high-profile effort to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies in Virginia. Democratic groups successfully sued Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for failing to hold special elections for the state legislature in a timely manner.
Democrats' initiatives on voting, however, tend to be reactive and piecemeal. This is in sharp contrast to the Republicans, whose efforts to suppress voting are closely and consciously tied to the party’s core messaging and strategy. Unless the left can make these goals central to the conversation, we risk a climate in which the right’s agenda goes effectively unchallenged.
Warren ably shows how money in politics subverts the will of the people. But Democrats have been much less effective at explaining how restrictions on the vote are connected to our current crisis of democracy. Disenfranchisement has always been central to American racism and American practices of tyrannical rule, such as slavery. A Democratic 2020 contender could easily make the case that voting rights are a vital ethical and practical imperative. Without them, we will reenact the worst moments in our history.
If the erosion of voting rights is a moral and political crisis, it calls not just for scattered local remedies but also for national action. The Roberts court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, making it easy for states in the South to bar black people from voting — as Georgia is doing by closing polling places in black-majority areas. In response, Democrats could propose new, national voting rights legislation to make such actions impossible, while also pushing the conversation forward in other ways.
They might, for example, insist that all states be required to embrace early voting and mail-in voting. There could be national legislation to outlaw felon disenfranchisement. For that matter, there could be national legislation to outlaw not only voter ID laws but also voter registration; in many other countries, the government maintains voter rolls rather than relying on citizens to register themselves.
To make the Senate more representative of people of color, the most direct fix is to fully enfranchise the District of Columbia and territories like Puerto Rico, which lack seats in the House and Senate. We should lower the voting age, so that young people could have a say in vital issues such as climate change, which will directly affect their future. We should consider giving immigrants the vote, as well.
While such policies have been discussed here and there, Democrats could find new focus by grouping them under a single comprehensive umbrella. Policy proposals aren’t just concrete plans, they are statements of values and statements of purpose. The point isn’t just to pass any one law. It’s to set benchmarks and moral standards. Right now, the United States behaves as if it doesn’t believe that every person has the right to vote. We need ambitious policy proposals not just to change that but also to help convince people that it needs to change.
Even under the best possible circumstances, enacting such changes would take time. But the proposals are also good short-term politics. Electoral enfranchisement was the central issue of the civil rights movement, and it has important symbolic resonance for black voters, a constituency vital to anyone running for the Democratic nomination for president. Sanders, who struggled to attract Southern black voters in 2016, could shore up support by putting voting rights at the center of a 2020 effort, for example.
Further, the argument for voting rights is obviously moral, inspirational and aspirational. The American project is built on the vote — when people can go to the polls, they can empower themselves, and create a better government and a better world. A campaign for voting rights for all is optimistic, universal and quintessentially American. Why wouldn’t a politician embrace it? No 2020 Democratic contender has done so yet. But one of them needs to.