There was a time in the recent past when America did much to make it easier for people to vote. Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act to undo the vestiges and practices of voter suppression based on race and ethnicity. State and local governments instituted early voting, facilitated absentee ballots, lengthened polling hours and made electoral registration as easy as mailing a postcard.
Voting is the most important action we do as Americans. Yet, in the last few years, Texas politicians have led the way in making voting more difficult, reversing decades of progress. We have seen a pattern of voter-suppression laws and actions across the land. These methods are aimed at certain groups of people whose interests differ significantly from those in power.
Denying the franchise is un-American. Because we live by what the majority speaks, we must do all we can to have as many speak as possible. That’s how democracy works at its best.
Yet, since 2011, 19 states have enacted laws to make voting far more difficult. Although the majority of states require some kind of voter identification, only 13 states have very strict laws (nine of them requiring a limited, very specific photo ID). Altogether, these voter ID laws affect 10 percent of the electorate. Six states have also reduced early voting; and six states have tightened voter registration laws, including Texas, making it more difficult for groups such as the League of Women Voters to even conduct registration drives.
The argument is that this is to control fraud, though in reality incidents of fraud are extraordinarily few. There are absolutely none on any large scale, given the billions of ballots cast over the years. The fraud argument is a charade.
Texas even had a $20 fee for a voter ID if someone didn’t already have one of the limited ID options prescribed by state lawmakers in 2011. It operated like the old poll tax, designed to keep Texas’ minority and poor people from voting.
Fortunately, the conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals this month blocked Texas’ voter ID law, finding that it adversely impacted minority voters. Experts calculate the Texas voter ID law has effectively disenfranchised more than 600,000 voters.
Other dangers to elections loom as well, two posed by the U.S. Supreme Court. First was the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that removed restrictions on campaign donations and unleashed a torrent of money, letting millionaires, billionaires and corporations shamelessly far outspend the average citizen and tell their employees how they should vote. This grossly disproportionate power undermines a genuinely citizen-oriented democracy.
The level of money expended on campaigns these days is obscene: Some $1 billion has already gone into this year’s presidential campaign. Imagine how far $1 billion would have gone in educating kids, setting up job-skills training or improving medical care in poor and rural areas of our nation.
Voting Rights Act gutted
The second Supreme Court decision was Shelby County, Texas v. Holder, which gutted application of the historic Voting Rights Act, even though the law operated just fine and Congress had renewed it repeatedly by large majorities.
If we want a democracy that works and flourishes, we have to reverse course and facilitate voting for everyone. Early balloting, weekend voting and same-day registration are all worthy options. We need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and perhaps one to limit campaigns to 60 days, as do other countries.
Since 2011, Texas politicians have spent $3.5 million in federal litigation to make it more difficult for Texans to vote. Ironically, Texas has lower electoral participation than most of the states, ranking 46th — and sometimes worse. If Texas politicians were really sincere about strengthening democracy and voter participation, that $3.5 million could have gone into promoting voting rather than on closing the doors to polling places.
Dramatically increasing the number of people who show up on Election Day would make Texas proud instead of its being known as the state whose governors and legislature do their best to suppress voting. It’s time to let our voices be heard.
Jim Harrington is a human rights attorney in Austin. He is the founder and former executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.