One of the great blessings of the recent election is that, as close as it was, it didn’t come down to one state again. A polarized nation would have been paralyzed, too.
America is even more divided than it was in 2000, when Florida — after five weeks of recounts, court challenges and a U.S. Supreme Court decision — provided Republican George W. Bush’s Electoral College majority in his race with Democrat Al Gore.
Florida was embarrassed enough to fix some of its problems — butterfly ballots are gone — but the counting was still going on Friday with the winner still in doubt. Florida could fix this with more voting machines, more polling places, more early voting and more professionalized staff, but making it hard to vote works well for Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee.
Other states were plagued with long lines, too, causing President Barack Obama, in his victory speech early Wednesday morning, to say, “We’ve got to fix that.”
In too many places, voting is a grueling endurance event. There’s no reason it has to be like this. Technology is available to make it faster, though there have been serious problems with some electronic voting machines; what can be hacked, will be hacked. Oregon has adopted a successful vote-by-mail program. But the easiest and fairest way to ensure access to the polls is to create a national voter registration system and expand early voting periods.
The basic problem is that the more people who vote, the more problems it causes for Republicans. Jamming the polls, thwarting early voting, trying to create photo ID laws for nonexistent fake voters — all of these are the modern-day equivalent of the poll taxes and literacy tests used by southern Democrats in Jim Crow days. They suppress votes and deny Americans a fundamental right.
But oddly, this fundamental right is not explicitly enshrined in the Constitution. Various amendments have said the vote can’t be denied on account of race, gender or age (as long as you’re 18), but an absolute affirmative right to vote is nowhere to be found.
In U.S. v. Cruikshank in 1876, a Reconstruction-era Supreme Court declined to extend the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to individuals. The result was that southern Democrats were free to enact voting laws that denied the vote to anyone they wanted, i.e, black people.
Cruikshank has been superseded by other court rulings, but state governments continue to control the voting process. Statehouses, as those in Missouri and Illinois know full well, tend to be full of highly partisan people. One of them, Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania House, was at least honest when he boasted in June that his state’s voter ID law was designed to help Mitt Romney win the presidential election.
Since early 2011, 27 voter suppression actions were taken in 19 separate states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Voters turned down some of them, courts threw out others and the Department of Justice blocked some.
It really shouldn’t be this hard, but states have been suppressing voters since the 1850s, when Connecticut and Massachusetts imposed literacy tests to keep new Irish-born citizens out of the polls. Poll taxes in the South were barred until 1966; the last of the literacy tests didn’t disappear until 1970.
In the wake of the Bush v. Gore fiasco, Congress passed the Voting Standards and Procedures Act in 2003 in an attempt to streamline registration and voting procedures. But as long as statehouses and election authority offices around the country are filled with partisan hacks, voting will be made harder than it has to be.
Rep. John R. Lewis, D-Ga., is the only member of Congress who has had been tear-gassed, assaulted by fire hoses, attacked by police dogs and had his skull fractured in the name of expanding the vote. This was in the early 1960s, when he was one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement. It gives him the unimpeachable moral high ground on the subject of voter rights.
Lewis is the sponsor of the Voter Empowerment Act, which would go a long way to providing the “fix” that Obama called for last week. It would, among other things, create a national electronic voter registration registry, allow online registration, set standards for voting machines and give the federal Election Assistance Commission the power to enforce standards. It would make the phony purges of voter rolls known as “voter caging” a felony.
It is hard to believe that the Republican-led House would pass Lewis’ bill. But it’s equally hard to believe that any member could vote against it and still look himself in the face.
In a speech to the Democratic National Convention in September, Lewis referred to today’s voter suppression efforts and said, “I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch