The American experiment began on an exclusive note: only white male property owners who paid taxes, met religious prerequisites, and were 21 or older were allowed to vote. The next 200 years saw a fight over the franchise that pitted progress (elimination of religious tests and property requirements, passage of the Fifteenth Amendment) against reaction (Jim Crow literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses). It was only in the twentieth century that Native Americans, African-Americans, women and 18-year-olds were accorded the place in the democratic process that should have been theirs at the founding of the Republic.
What is so alarming about voting in the twenty-first century is that the forces of reaction are again on the march. Unsettled by their inability to “manage” an expanded and changing electorate, the corporations that fund the American Legislative Exchange Council and other right-wing groups are waging a war on voting. Restrictive voter ID laws—which Attorney General Eric Holder compares to the poll taxes of old—have gotten the most attention. But they are only part of a spate of recent anti-democratic measures that limit same-day voter registration, narrow options for early voting, and spin webs of restriction and intimidation for the same classes of voters who were once formally barred from the franchise (see Brentin Mock on the battle in Florida over eligibility for ex-felons).
The Brennan Center for Justice says voter ID laws alone could disenfranchise 25 percent of African-Americans and 16 percent of Latinos, with the very old and the young most threatened. That’s the immediate danger, which must be addressed with great urgency. The campaign against voter suppression must renew the civil rights–era coalition of churches, unions, and civic and good government groups and advocate on a nonpartisan basis—as the NAACP, the ACLU and the League of Women Voters are—for the removal of barriers to full and functional democracy. As the Voting Rights Watch project, a collaboration between The Nation and Colorlines.com, reports that is exactly what’s happening. Legislators are finally getting in on the action, too. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative John Lewis have introduced the Voter Empowerment Act, which has 140 co-sponsors in the House. The bill would widen ballot access with such measures as same-day and online registration and strengthen standards that ensure ballot integrity and accountability.
The fight should not stop there. Why not automatically register all citizens when they reach the age of eligibility? As Steven Hill observes, that’s the norm in most democracies. And as Justice Antonin Scalia condescendingly noted during the oral arguments for Bush v. Gore, Americans do not have a constitutionally protected right to vote. We should fix that. In addition to a constitutional amendment to clean up the money-in-politics mess created by the Citizens United ruling, America needs what all but twelve of the world’s democracies have: the right to vote enshrined in our Constitution.
To win the 2012 elections, progressives must immediately wage court fights, organize election monitoring and, above all, get every eligible voter registered and to the polls. But once the race of the moment is run, a new generation of voting rights activists must again bend the arc of history toward justice by finally and firmly guaranteeing that every American has the right to vote.