Equal Freedom to VoteCitizens should have the same opportunity to vote and have their vote counted.
END VOTER SUPPRESSION
End voter suppression and discrimination by modernizing our voting system
It’s no secret that our representative democracy was founded on inequality, with anyone who’s not a white, land-owning man excluded from the process. Yet, thanks to the sacrifice of many minority groups before us—such as the women’s suffrage movement in the 1920s and the civil rights movement in the 1960s—equal right to vote has become the norm. We’ve made extraordinary progress.
Unfortunately, there has been a disturbing trend in recent years to roll back this progress. Instead of pushing our democracy forward, politicians in too many states are now engaging in voter suppression in order to gain an unfair advantage in elections. Much of it has been enabled by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act—the most important piece of voting rights legislation of the 20th century.
Since then, states across the country have passed laws that grant unequal access to the polls, often discriminating against the most vulnerable groups in society. One of the most popular voter suppression tactics is voter ID laws—laws that require voters to present some form of identification prior to voting. Now 34 states have voter ID laws. While voter ID requirements might seem logical, they accomplish little other than depressing the turnout among the groups that are limited in their ability to fulfil those requirements.
Getting the correct ID to vote can be difficult, if not impossible to many eligible voters. In Mississippi, for example, a birth certificate is required to get a photo ID. But if you don’t have your birth certificate for whatever reason, you’d need to present a photo ID to get a copy.
Studies have shown that voters in minority groups typically have less access to photo IDs and a recent study finds that “strict photo identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections”.
These IDs are a solution to a non-existent problem: voter fraud. Study after study has shown there is no evidence of widespread in-person voter fraud, yet, the need to eradicate voter fraud is often cited as the reason to justify more voter ID laws.
Other voter suppression tactics include rolling back early voting periods, making it more difficult to register voters, and even reducing the number of polling places. In 2016, there were 868 fewer polling places in states like Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina compared to previous elections, which likely impacted hundreds of thousands of voters.
Why does every American deserve an equal freedom to vote? In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others.”
CONSEQUENCES OF THE STATUS QUO
While there are many factors affecting voter turnout rates, unequal freedom to vote certainly plays a role. And the voter turnout rates in the U.S. are particularly abysmal.
Only 60.0% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 presidential election. In the 2014 midterm elections only 35.9% did so. Turnout is even worse among younger voters; only 28% of Americans aged 18-to-29 are certain they will vote this year. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 21.4% of eligible voters were not registered in 2014.
These numbers are even more strikingly bad when compared to turnout and registration rates of other developed countries. In the most recent elections for which data is available in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, the voter registration rates are 94.36%, 96.28%, and 93.54% respectively. And in each country, voter turnout was significantly higher: 81.9%, 85.81%, and 85.89%.
Charles Stewart at MIT estimated that in the 2016 elections more than 16-million Americans encountered problems voting and one million votes were lost because of voter suppression. Had only half of those voters been able to cast their votes, the election outcomes might have been very different.
Most solutions that ensure equal freedom to vote are simple and straightforward.
Equal Citizens actively supports any and all efforts to fight against voter suppression—unnecessarily stringent voter ID laws, reducing the number of polling places, reducing early voting periods, or any other attempts to roll back the Voting Rights Act.
A simple legislation that updates the preclearance requirement in Section IV of the Voting Rights Act would reverse the damage Shelby County v. Holder has done by enabling voter suppression tactics. The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 is a good model for such an effort.
Besides these defensive measures, there are other policies that can drastically improve access to voting:
Automatic voter registration
Currently, our voter registration system severely undermines equal access to voting. Because we have a voluntary registration system with no federal guidelines for the states, many state legislatures make it difficult for voters — especially low-income voters and people of color — to register, often to gain unfair advantage for their party.
One of the best ways to improve the registration process is through automatic voter registration (AVR). This wonky sounding reform is actually quite simple. In a state with AVR, anytime eligible voters interact with an eligible government agency, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, the voter is automatically registered (unless he or she opts-out).
In 2015, Oregon became the first state to implement AVR and, in just one year of the program, AVR registered approximately 275,000 Oregonians and of those almost 100,000 voted for the first time. In 2016, the state had the largest increase in turnout of any state in the country. And if that wasn’t enough, the program diversified the electorate, making it more representative of Oregon’s demographics.
Since Oregon passed the law in 2015, twelve states plus Washington DC have followed suit, with more likely on the way. According to Demos, if every state were to adopt automatic voter registration, twenty-seven million Americans would be added to the voter rolls.
Automatic voter registration:
- Increases the numbers of registered voters
- Makes electorate more representative
- Reduces errors
- Cleans up voter rolls
If we truly want a functional 21st century democracy, it’s time to implement a federal AVR requirement. And fortunately there is already a bill to do exactly that: the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017 (S.1353). Introduce by Senator Patrick Leahy, this bill would integrate numerous federal and state agencies into the voter registration process through data-sharing requirements with election authorities. Whenever an eligible individual interacts with an eligible national governmental agency (such as the Social Security Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs), that person will automatically be registered.
A national AVR law would allow millions more Americans to have a say in our democracy, making our government more accountable to the American people. That’s why Equal Citizens started a petition to support S.1353.
Same day registration (SDR) is an essential fail-safe for voters who want to vote but might not have been captured in the AVR system (or decided last minute that they wanted to vote). SDR, just like the name implies, allows eligible voters to register or update their registration at their polling location on Election Day (or during early voting). This ensures no one gets turned away at the polls if they make an effort to vote.
As of 2018, fifteen states plus Washington DC have implemented same-day voter registration for Election Day. And the results speak for themselves. One report shows states with SDR have over 10 percent higher voter turnout.
SDR isn’t just about non-registered voters. Oftentimes, people move and forget to re-register with their new address. SDR allows these voters to have a voice in our elections despite this harmless mistake. (In the current system, these voters would have to fill out a provisional ballot, which is often unreliable.)
Enfranchising the youth
The future of our democracy depends on our youth. But the voter turnout rates among youth people have been alarmingly low in recent years. In 2016, for example, only 43 percent of those under 25 voted, well below the national average. One way to increase this percentage is to allow sixteen and seventeen year olds to preregister to vote, so they are ready vote when they become eligible.
Anyone who has ever registered 18 year olds to vote knows that eighteen is a terrible age to enter into the voter registration labyrinth—especially for those who are beginning their first year in college. There are too much confusion over where to register or how to register while away from home. Pre-registration would remove these obstacles and integrate young people into our democratic process while they are still receiving relatively stable support from their high school and under the guardianship of their parents.
And pre-registration works. One study showed that pre-registration for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds can boost youth turnout up to 13 percent. As of right now, fourteen states (and DC) allow pre-registration for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Four states have pre-registration only for seventeen-year-olds.
California has taken their pre-registration system even further, integrating it into their new AVR program. That means when 16 year olds get their driver’s license, they are automatically registered to vote. Thus far over 100,000 teens have pre-registered in California. Estimates suggest the number could grow to 200,000 per year as the pre-registration program gets fully integrated into AVR.
Capturing youth in our democratic process earlier in their lives is imperative. Research shows once someone votes for the first time, they are more likely to do so again.
Make election day a holiday or move it to the weekend
Another major hindrance to voting access is the fact that Election Day takes place in the middle of the work week.
Far from some sacred tradition, voting on Tuesday is a vestige of our agrarian history. But in today’s modern world, holding Election Day on a Tuesday is as absurd as it is regressive—for it makes our elections inaccessible to those who have to work multiple jobs or take care of children, and it can create an unnecessary bottleneck at the polls before and after work hours. Long lines, which disproportionately affects communities of color, deter voting.
Making Election Day a holiday would give voters the freedom to vote throughout the day, increasing accessibility. And if another national holiday is for some reason a dealbreaker, an alternative, suggested by political scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, is to create a twenty-four-hour voting period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday.
There are concerns that retail, restaurant, and hospital workers would be adversely affected by making Election Day a holiday. But any potential pitfalls could be mitigated with a generous and accessible early voting period in every state.
In states across the country, felons—at some point during their time in the criminal justice system—are deprived of the right to vote. Ten states, though, may never give that right back, even after the felons have served their time.
These felon disenfranchisement laws are a legacy of Jim Crow. Politicians in the post-Reconstruction era used these laws to keep African Americans from the polls. While the right to vote could not be denied based on skin color (the 15th Amendment, after all, prohibited that), felon disenfranchisement is constitutional.
And the language used during the passage of these laws shows they are clearly motivated by racism. Carter Glass, a Virginia state senator at the turn of the 20th century, for example, explained these laws would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
This legacy of Jim Crow lives on and currently prevents 2.5 percent of the voting-age population from voting, many of whom have already served their time.
Most of these laws are concentrated in former Confederate states. But of all of them, Florida is the worst. There, approximately 1.6 million American citizens cannot vote because of felon disenfranchisement—three thousand times the vote margin that decided the 2000 election in the state.
The solution here is simple: everyone deserves a second chance. One does not lose citizenship during incarceration; as such, one should not lose the right to vote.
Find out whether your state has felon disenfranchisement laws here →
SECURE OUR ELECTIONS
Secure our elections against foreign attacks and hacking
For a democratic society to properly function and maintain its legitimacy, citizens must be confident that every vote gets counted and the election results are accurate. Attempts to rig elections such as vote altering or database tampering would cast doubts on the legitimacy of the elected government and are therefore dangerously destabilizing.
Yet, as a nation, we underfund and neglect election security. As a result, much like our aging transportation infrastructure, our election infrastructure is severely outdated and crumbling before our eyes. This is a troubling fact given the overwhelming evidence of foreign interference in the 2016 election.
Much of the neglect can be attributed to our current decentralized, disjointed state-based election security standards. Currently, the federal government plays a very limited role in the oversight of election security. The Election Assistance Commission and Department of Homeland Security offer optional resources and issue non-binding guidelines for best practices, and states are free to come up with their own standards as they please. Too many states set standards that are clearly inadequate for protecting our elections against foreign interference in the 21st century.
CONSEQUENCES OF THE STATUS QUO
Just how obsolete and insecure are our election infrastructure?
In 2016, more than two-thirds of all counties in the U.S. used voting machines that were older than a decade. Many machines used outdated software and ran in absurdly old operating systems, such as Windows 2000. Thirteen states still use machines that are completely electronic, which makes them prone to glitches, and with no paper trails, the results cannot be audited.
Many experts have pointed out that our current machines could be hacked in a matter of minutes. Recently, a participant at DefCon breached a voting machine in 90 minutes, and was able to change the vote tally in the machine remotely, from anywhere.
Even though virtually all election security experts agree that paperless election machines are our biggest vulnerability, states have been slow to replace them. Because states are not required to spend the federal grant allocated to them, some states legislatures are even impeding the use of federal grants through a combination of delayed action and inaction. For example, Florida’s Republican-led state legislature has refused to authorize their election officials to use the grant before the 2018 election, even when the state is in desperate need for more election security funding.
Besides the machines, there are other major vulnerabilities in many states’ election security standards that would make hacking our elections a breeze. Our voter registration databases are outdated and prone to infiltration. Many states have no post-election auditing requirements at all, and those that do are often insufficient, severely undermining our ability to identify and correct an attack. So far, only two states (Colorado and Rhode Island) have taken action by requiring risk-limiting post election audits—the “gold-standard” of election auditing. The other forty-eight states are behind the curve.
The status quo is no longer acceptable. It’s time that the federal government steps in and sets strict election security standards. We cannot wait for all 50 states to individually get their acts together.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced The Protecting American Votes and Elections Act of 2018, which would set adequate election security standards that can give voters confidence that election results have not been hacked. The bill requires every state to use secure election machines with paper ballots and mandate risk-limiting post-election audits.
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of the bill’s cosponsors, puts it, “We know that Russia hacked into American voter systems to influence our election – and we know they’ll try to do it again. Our national security experts have warned us that the country’s election infrastructure is vulnerable – this bill will take important steps to help secure it.”