The Right to Vote
The recent Supreme Court decision declaring Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional has the potential of setting the right of people in this country to vote back decades. Along with the earlier Citizens United decision, which took away restrictions on campaign contributions by corporations and anonymous contributors, this action encourages practices that ultimately make elections in this country less open and fair, favoring those already in power and in possession of the resources necessary to campaign for and win elections.
In 2012, several attempts were made in states which fell under the protection of the provisions of this section to change requirements for voting which were prevented because they were deemed invalid by the Department of Justice. Preclearance requirements were made of specific states and areas of others where discriminatory voting provisions had been made in the past. Without preclearance of proposed voting laws and redistricting in these states, many voters would have lost the ability to vote, or been unfairly represented in Congress. Some of these same practices were also attempted in non-specified states during 2012, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. Without recourse to preclearance requirements when it comes to changing election laws, unfair laws could do great damage to the democratic nature of elections as they had before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Unlike the rights to Freedom of Speech, the Right to Bear Arms, and other rights enumerated in the Constitution, Bill of Rights and other Amendments, there is currently no overarching Constitutional right to vote. Voting when the Constitution was ratified was basically restricted to white males. Freeing the slaves and enfranchising them, allowing women to vote and lowering the voting age to 21 each took individual Constitutional Amendments to bring to fruition. Until recently, though hard-fought and excruciatingly slow, the direction of change has been in favor of including larger segments of the population in our elections, not smaller ones. Without swift Congressional action, this decision by the Supreme Court could result in a drastic exclusion of increasing numbers of people from the electorate unjustly.
Voter ID laws have recently sprung up in various states, normally those which have Republican Governors and Republican dominated legislatures, as a means of restricting voting in the guise of combatting non-existent or extremely rare cases of voter fraud. The problem with these laws is they often place an undue burden on the poor, minorities, and the aged to get another piece of paper proving their identity. Often, the state-offered solution is a state driver’s license. The issuing authority for such identification may require significant travel, as motor vehicle department offices are not as plentiful as, say, Post Offices. Also, expense is incurred at many points along the path, depending on what the charge is for the ID, and what other documentation must be gathered in order to qualify for it, if the documents are in fact available at all. Are poll taxes to become legal again? Even if the ID itself may be free, getting it is not without cost in many instances.
The elderly, those who don’t drive or have easy access to transportation, or even college students may be targeted and need to jump through hoops to register and vote. Ohio is one state in particular which has looked into targeting college students wishing to vote in the districts where they attend school, as opposed to where their parents live. Making them ineligible there skews the electorate. They live there for most of the year, contributing to the local economy, paying taxes, obeying local laws, etc., and election day is smack in the middle of the fall semester. Sure, if they wish to vote absentee in what some consider to be their home, that should be an option, but why make it mandatory, as long as they only vote in one place?
The general path of voting in this country has been to avail more people of the opportunity. Passing amendments allowing former slaves, women and 18 year olds the right to vote more than doubled the proportion of people who could choose who would serve in their elected government. The piecemeal nature of the process of increasing the size of the eligible electorate has not been smooth or pretty. It is in danger of unraveling if something is not done to stem this tide of suppressing the vote. Enabling certain segments of the population to maintain control over the rest of us by taking away our voice in the voting booth while pretending to maintain it elsewhere is unacceptable.
Legislation or a Constitutional amendment needs to be passed that will establish for once and for all that each individual has a right to participate in her/his government on an equal basis with each other individual in the selection of that government. The wiggle room that resulted in Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy tests and threatens to broaden into Voter ID and other highly transparent attempts to suppress the vote of some while giving advantages to others needs to be removed – nationwide, not state by state or county by county. A person living in rural Alabama should have their vote count as much and be cast as easily as one living in downtown Los Angeles. Designing elections that cause people to wait in lines long after closing time for the polls to cast their vote are unnecessary in this technological age and are another example of a less obvious form of voter suppression.
The right appears determined to gain through restrictive voting practices what it has been unable to achieve in popular opinion during recent election cycles. By turning election victories achieved in the 2010 midterm elections into long-lasting redistricting that makes those gains secure, as well as changing election laws and procedures to disadvantage groups of people less likely to vote for them, Republican legislatures and Governors seem to be attacking the very foundations of democracy in America. Rather than encouraging people to vote for their vision and principles, they are trying to place obstacles in the paths of those who oppose them and rendering them voiceless when it comes to who shall govern them. That is not government by consent of the governed, but rather government in spite of their disapproval.
By making this decision to throw out the federal preclearance of new state and local voting laws for selected states, the Supreme Court has made clear that this country needs to more firmly assert, once and for all, the right of each member of this society to vote. Nothing illustrates this need more poignantly than the announcement, within hours of the publication of the Supreme Court decision in this case, that Texas intends to immediately enact the laws and redistricting plans that has been nullified in preclearance by the Justice Department. Placing this right in legislation that expires makes no more sense to me than writing a Constitution or Bill of Rights that expires. If as many people fought as ferociously for this right as they have been recently in defense of the right to bear arms, this country would be much better off for it. Send this message every time a state legislator or Member of Congress proposes a law that restricts someone’s right to vote. Send it to them when they do it and send it to them when they ask for your vote in the next election. Sometimes that is the only way they will ever get message.
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