History has shown that the right to vote has never been freely granted. Instead, it has been held closely by those with power and control over voting laws, and only expanded when public pressure demanded, first to black men, then women, then the poor, and lastly to those aged 18-20 with the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971.
As we remember the 54th anniversary of the March to Selma this week, we need to recognize that access to the vote is still a highly charged partisan issue, as we saw in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia. The methods are just more subtle than in past years.
“Voter fraud” has become the new rally cry of politicians and those who want to create fear messaging and a false narrative which will allow new forms of 21st century voter suppression, like purging voter rolls if name matches aren’t exact or postcards to mailing addresses aren’t returned, requiring strict photoID or overusing provisional ballots by questioning a voter’s registration at the polls.
Our federal protections disappeared in 2013 when Chief Justice John Roberts declared that America had “changed” and states with racial discrimination histories no longer needed to have their voting and election laws pre-cleared by the Dept. of Justice. But in the 6 short years since that decision we have seen many examples of how America has not changed. Racist power structures are still in place across education laws, healthcare policy decisions, environmental injustices and more. When elected leaders don’t understand the concept of racism, like we saw with Rep. Mark Meadow’s display of tokenism at the February 27th, 2019 Michael Cohen hearing, how can they be expected to work towards eradicating it?
Restoring the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act will go a long way towards protecting access to the ballot, something which Democratic lawmakers in Congress have pledged to pursue once they have the votes, through HB1, the For the People Act.
However, there are things we can do now in North Carolina to ensure voting access is equitable for every eligible person, and we protect the integrity of our elections at the same time.
- Modernize Our Voter Registration System
- Automatic Voter Registration; Citizens who interact with various government agencies would be registered to vote unless they opt out. This information would be updated electronically to election officials.
- Use new technology to track and maintain a voter’s status even if they move. Allow voters to update their personal information online, during interactions with government agencies or at the polls.
For more on how this can work see this report from the Brennan Center for Justice.
- Fund and develop concise and detailed training plans for each county Board of Elections office, with follow through and ongoing audit procedures. As we saw in the NC09 hearing, disregarding security procedures and not following rules leads to a lack of confidence in electoral outcomes.
- Improve cyber security across all of our election systems, and provide a public report with updates on steps taken.
- Avoid long lines by ensuring there is adequate access to early voting opportunities across each county. There should be a minimum number of polling places and open hours based on population, and an increased awareness of vote by mail options. Making Election Day a local holiday and working with colleges and universities to promote voter education on campuses and in orientation materials will also help expand access to the polls.
- Take PhotoID out of the state constitution, in accordance with Judge Bryan Collins’ recent ruling. Apart from the decision that the current legislature is not representative of the will of the people, this should never have been a constitutional amendment, especially since details on how it would be implemented were never provided before the election. If the people of North Carolina want to see a form of identification used when voting, then it should be built into the modernization of the voting process and developed over time with testing and flexibility built in.
Our fragile democracy requires active participation by all of us, and voting is the key element to protecting our way of life. All eligible Americans should be able to easily register to vote, have the opportunity to cast a ballot that will be accurately counted, and have their vote contribute equally in the election process. The right to vote is a patriotic value, not a partisan issue. Let’s show that North Carolina can be a leader in expanding access to the ballot.