By Emma Greenman*
With a week until the 2018 elections, campaigns are shifting into high gear and so are voter suppression efforts in many parts of the country. America’s history with disenfranchisement is older than the Constitution itself and this year we have seen a disturbing acceleration of the decade-old resurgence of restrictive voting laws, voter suppression tactics and nefarious operations to depress voter turnout. Since 2010, 24 states (almost all under Republican control) have put new voter restrictions into place – 13 states enacted more restrictive voter ID laws, 11 states made it harder to register to vote, 7 states cut back on early voting, and 3 made it harder for people with past criminal convictions to restore their voting rights.
Yet in the face of suppression, there is hope. There are proactive efforts that communities and policymakers can take to make sure that every eligible person can participate in our elections.
These voter suppression tactics are a poorly disguised attempt by one political party to manipulate the electorate in order to maintain power while the country grows more diverse and younger voters step up to exercise their political power. Look no farther than Georgia and North Dakota, where elected leaders are changing voting rules and engaging in practices that have been proven to make it harder for Black and Native American citizens, respectively, to vote. Young voters are also a target as states including Arizona, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas enact strict voter ID laws and refuse to allow university students to use their student IDs to vote.
In the face of these attacks, Americans are stepping up to protect the right to vote. As Nse Ufot, Executive Director of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, puts it, “Republicans are trying to fight the future…and they are failing.” The New Georgia Project and similar organizations across the country are fighting, precinct by precinct, voter by vote, to ensure that Black, Brown and young voters are not shut out of our democracy. As Election Day nears, there are herculean non-partisan election protection efforts in states across the country gearing up to bring together lawyers, organizers and volunteers to ensure that every voter can cast a ballot that is counted.
However, relying on Election Day voter protection is insufficient to ensure that every vote, and every voice, counts in every corner of our country. To realize the potential of an inclusive democracy –– we must urgently prioritize structural reforms that protects and expands the right to vote.
That starts by passing proactive democracy reforms that protect and ensure access to the ballot.
There is exciting momentum for pro-voter policies in a set of states. Given the acceleration of voter suppression efforts in some states and a Supreme Court now poised to assist – we need to harness this momentum and use every tool in our toolbox to strengthen democracy in states where participation is under attack.
Cities and counties are great place to start. With the majority of the US population living in cities and urban counties, local reforms to expand voter registration and access to the ballot are a key tool to ensure robust and equitable civic participation.
In states that are purging their voter rolls and erecting barriers to voter registration, cities and counties can go on the offensive by passing local laws expanding access to voter registration through city or county agencies. These policies expanding voter registration are crucial for increasing voter turnout and for strengthening representation of low-income communities, communities of color, and young people. Our current voter registration system has left up to 43 percent of eligible Latinxs, 44 percent of eligible Asian Americans, 30 percent of eligible Black citizens, and 45 percent of eligible young people aged 18 to 24 unregistered to vote. Registration rates for families with annual incomes below $30,000 and naturalized citizens are also disproportionately low.
Local lawmakers can adopt ordinances giving eligible residents the opportunity to register to vote when applying for services provided by local government—including, for example, through agencies that provide human and social services, affordable housing, health and afterschool programs. Local governments have existing infrastructure and staff that can be trained to help eligible residents navigate the voter registration process at the same time as they are helping them apply for or renew other services. These relatively simple reforms would go a long way to reduce our registration disparities, given that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately more likely to be registered to vote at public agencies.
Moreover, with young people stepping up and fanning out across their communities to register their peers, we should change the laws and ensure that every eligible high school student is registered to vote when they graduate. In addition to pursuing Automatic Voter Registration at the state level where it is possible, most school boards across the country have the power to implement local reform to register the eligible students in their high schools. Working with student leaders and non-partisan community organizations, high schools should incorporate registration and voter education into the culture of American high school. Millions of teenagers will turn 18 in 2020; ensuring that all of them are registered and can cast a ballot would open our democracy to the next generation and transform our political system.
On November 6, we must go out and protect the vote of every eligible citizen and ensure their ballot is counted. On November 7, let’s get to work advancing laws in cities, counties, school districts and states to build the inclusive, representative democracy that we deserve.
*Emma Greenman is the Director of Voting Rights and Democracy at the Center for Popular Democracy.
Featured Image provided by Michael Fleshman.