The ability to cast a ballot that will be counted is a fundamental freedom that protects the other essential rights that Americans hold dear. The freedom to vote is how Americans, regardless of privilege or economic status, maintain the power to hold their elected representatives accountable for the decisions that impact their lives.
A legitimate government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” must vigorously promote and protect the freedom to vote so that all eligible voters can participate in this fundamental exercise in self-government. Right now, already powerful interests are threatening our freedom to vote, and the ability of us all to exercise our constitutional right to participate in our democracy.
Strengthening our democracy means facilitating civic inclusion and democratic participation. The Voter Empowerment Act of 2012, HR 5799, has the goal of improving our electoral system to provide more access to the ballot, integrity in our election systems, and accountability in our elections. Today, our freedom to vote is jeopardized by both systemic weaknesses and direct attacks aimed at undermining the franchise:
- Bureaucratic barriers block our freedom to vote with red tape. Our antiquated system puts the burden of registration on each individual, with unnecessarily restrictive registration procedures.
- Our electoral system threatens the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of voters each cycle through byzantine and non-standardized voter roll purges. When these machinations lead to eligible voters being dropped from the rolls, or challenged, their right to vote can be denied on the basis of bureaucratic error or even malfeasance.
- Some otherwise eligible American citizens are barred from voting because of past crimes, even if they have completed their sentences and are otherwise restored to society.
- Voters continue to face underhanded attempts to keep them from the polls through tricks and deceptive practices, such as information being distributed calling on members of certain parties to vote on days after Election Day.
The numbers tell the tale of how red tape can present barriers that keep people from voting. Approximately 131 million American citizens voted in the 2008 elections. Over 146 million people were registered to vote in 2008, according to the US Census Current Population Survey. So, the voting rate for people who were registered to vote was ninety percent, while the voting rate for citizens of voting age was only sixty-four percent.
Today, approximately 51 million eligible Americans are still not registered to vote, according to the Pew Center on the States. This represents almost one in four citizens, disproportionately low-income voters, people of color, and younger Americans. This suggests that a major focus for increasing citizen participation in elections should be to decrease the bureaucratic barriers to becoming registered to vote.
Eligible Americans should never find themselves shut out of the system and denied the right to participate in choosing their government representatives because of bureaucratic error. Yet a Cooperative Congressional Election Study by Harvard Professor Stephen Ansolabehere reported that in the 2008 election 2 to 3 million registered voters were prevented from voting because of registration or other administrative problems, and 9 million eligible Americans were not registered because of residency rules or registration deadlines. Reportedly, the number of people barred from voting in 2008 exceeded the popular vote margin of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The study concluded that “registration continues to create significant barriers to getting into the electoral system and to voting on Election Day.”
Anyone can get caught up in the red tape and find their freedom to vote impinged upon. Former U.S. Representative Lincoln Davis knows something about elections and government, yet this year when he went to polls in his hometown where he’d been voting since 1995, he was denied the right to vote.
“We walked in and they told me I was not a registered voter. I had been taken off the list . . . These are people who I grew up with. I told them I live here. I went to school about 20 yards away. . . .It’s always been this way and today, for some reason, they change it. I had a sense of uneasiness when I was told that I was not allowed to vote. They didn’t offer me a provisional ballot, or anything, just told me I wasn’t registered. . . . He said I would have to re-register, and I told them I'm already registered, I'm not going to re-register. I'm a former member of Congress, state senator, House member, mayor and all my life, I've been involved in the community, coaching Little League, participating in Boy Scouts and serving on boards here, and I'm denied the right to vote. It just doesn't make sense.”
Representative Davis had been improperly “purged” from the voting rolls. If it can happen to a former Congressman, it can happen to anyone.
Americans deserve an election system that is much more responsive to their needs, and which facilitates their participation in democratic governance. The Voter Empowerment Act would reform our system so that all eligible Americans can participate, and so that we maintain an electoral system that can be a model for democracy throughout the world by:
- Automating voter registration so government protects and promotes our freedom to vote.
- Instituting Election Day Voter Registration so that eligible voters aren’t denied their right to vote at the polling place without recourse.
- Prohibiting insidious deceptive practices where fraudulent information is distributed to prevent people from voting.
- Protecting voters by guarding against attempts to remove eligible voters from the voting rolls or use bureaucratic chicanery to challenge eligible voters at the polls.
- Restoring voting rights to all citizens who have been restored to society.
This is a critical moment in our democratic self-government. Money is flooding into elections, amplifying the voices of the richest few and special interests. Big monied interests are able to drown out the voices of the average person to an even larger degree than ever before. According to Montana Supreme Court Justice Nelson:
“It is utter nonsense to think that ordinary citizens or candidates can spend enough to place their experience, wisdom, and views before the voters and keep pace with the virtually unlimited spending capability of corporations to place corporate views before the electorate. In spending ability, bigger really is better; and with campaign advertising and attack ads, quantity counts. In the end, candidates and the public will become mere bystanders in elections.”
Indeed, recent polling shows that because big donors have so much more influence over elected officials than average Americans, over a quarter of Americans say they are less likely to vote.Over forty percent of all Americans, and nearly half of those with low incomes or less education, believe their votes don’t matter very much.
We need to respond at this moment by ensuring the freedom to vote is available to all eligible voters, particularly those on the margins. To counter the undue influence of money in government, American voters should be empowered to exert control over their government. We can use the ballot box to hold elected representatives accountable for implementing solutions to the problems that affect our lives.
We have travelled a long road to ensure that eligible Americans are not blocked from voting on the basis of race, gender, or financial qualification. Only within the last fifty years landmark voting rights legislation was adopted to make the democratic dream closer to a reality for citizens who were being blocked from participation. It was only in 1965 that the Supreme Court recognized that a poll tax was unconstitutional because “voter qualifications have no relation to wealth....”
Unfortunately, many states are adopting laws that will make it harder for eligible Americans to vote. These laws make it harder to vote by requiring identification to vote, requiring proof of citizenship to register, restricting voter registration drives, and curtailing early voting. They may abridge the freedom to vote of 5 million eligible American voters.
Some proponents of the new voting restrictions are explicit that their goal is to make it harder for Americans to vote. The New Hampshire House Speaker wanted to end his state’s Same Day Registration program because young people are “foolish”, lack “life experience” and “just vote their feelings” - “voting as a liberal. That’s what kids do” he was taped as saying. Leading conservative Paul Weyrich was explicit about his view of a participatory democracy and a citizen’s role in self-government years ago when he told a gathering of conservative religious leaders:
How many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome? Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
But generations of Americans didn’t fight for our rights so that only some Americans could vote, but for the rights of all eligible Americans to vote. Representative John Lewis recalled the history and the stakes involved in the fight to achieve voting rights in a stirring speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in May:
“Just think, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 it was almost impossible for many people in the state of Georgia, in Alabama, in Virginia, in Texas, to register to vote, to participate in the democratic process. . . . We should be opening up the political process and letting all of our citizens come in and participate. People died for the right to vote. Friends of mine. Colleagues of mine.”
Participating in elections is a fundamental right of citizenship, a necessary element of what it means to be a free, self-governing people. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained that:
“The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic traditions and it is democracy turned upside down. 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.”
The reforms addressed in the Voter Empowerment Act are aimed at protecting the right to vote and participate in choosing our elected representatives, fulfilling the promise of American democracy.
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