American Legitimacy Will Not Survive Voter Suppression

Last week, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled that certain districts in Texas violate the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by basing district lines on race, “with the intent to dilute minority voting strength.”

After making strides in expanding the right to vote in the twentieth century, the last several years have seen an orchestrated attempt by the GOP to revive voter suppression. It is upon all of us to not only fiercely protect the right to vote today, but push to make it easier and more accessible, just as minorities and women fought to do decades ago. Thankfully, despite the recent Department of Justice’s poor decision to remove itself from the important Texas voter ID case, our judicial system is starting to crack down on some of the more egregious examples of GOP gerrymandering.

The most legitimate democracy is one in which every citizen has the right and the access to vote, and all votes are counted equally. Our own experience demonstrates the pursuit of this ideal, as the arc of American history has steadily tilted towards a more inclusive right to vote, correlating with a rise in our democratic legitimacy. We should heed the lesson of our own history and realize that restricting the right to vote, or impeding it so only certain categories of voters can cast ballots, is the antithesis of democracy and directly undermines the legitimacy of the whole system.

The Trump Administration’s continued false accusations of voter fraud are thinly-veiled attempts to undermine citizen’s confidence in our most fundamental democratic institution — voting, in an effort to justify nationalizing the GOP’s state-level efforts to suppress minority and low-income citizens’ right and access to vote. With poll taxes and literacy tests long ago struck down by the courts, new voter suppression techniques have been devised to reverse historical strides towards voter inclusion. Yesterday’s poll tax is today’s voter ID law. Last year’s prohibition on African American voting is today’s felon disenfranchisement. The underlying motive is the same, to prevent minorities from voting, thereby inflating the influence of the majority white vote.

Thirty-four states now have restrictive voter ID laws. And recent overtures by Attorney General Sessions suggest the Trump Administration intends to reverse the Department of Justice’s hard fought efforts to counter state photo ID laws, again putting the White House on the side of voter suppression. This will put even more importance on the courts and on civic engagement at the state level to defend voter rights.

Early voting is allowed in thirty-seven states, but reducing the number of days is also becoming a new frontier for voter suppression. Only 11 states, and the District of Columbia, allowed same-day voter registration on November 8 last year. These laws may not discriminate on their face, but the discriminatory result is undeniable. They disproportionately impact low-income and minority voters who are more likely to be unable to take the time off of work, afford transportation to the DMV, or to obtain the underlying documentation necessary to acquire the photo ID. For example, while 11 percent of the U.S. electorate do not have a government-issued photo ID, as much as 25 percent of Black Americans lack such an ID. The result is a reduction in minority voting.

Felon disenfranchisement takes voting suppression even further. Forty-eight states deny the right to vote to citizens with a felony conviction, resulting in 6.1 million Americans being prevented from voting. This disenfranchisement is a relic from when wealthy, elite whites sought to prevent newly freed Black men from voting by targeting only those felonies believed to be most committed by Black people. The racial impact is exacerbated in today’s era of mass incarceration. One in 13 Black voting adults has lost his/her right to vote, versus 1 in 56 non-Black voting adults. This disenfranchisement is felt in every election, including last November when over 1.6 million Floridians were unable to vote due to a felony conviction — the presidential election in Florida was decided by 112,911 votes.

Voter suppression is compounded by hyper-partisan gerrymandering, which results in a system whereby politicians get to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. Hyper-partisan districts diminish the influence of minority voters by combining them into a limited number of districts. This scheme enables minority voters to elect a representative of their choice, but only in a few majority, minority districts. The influence of the minority vote is removed from other districts, again inflating the influence of the white vote in more districts.

Our government is facing a legitimacy crisis, made worse by every new voter ID law and lost day of early voting. But it is not enough to simply yell and stomp our feet at these poorly disguised attempts by Republicans to lock in power through voter suppression. We must act, starting by refusing their false narrative and changing the conversation. Voting fraud is not a problem in this country. But suppressing the right to vote is. That should be the conversation of the day. Why do Republicans want to make it harder to vote? Why do they fear voter turnout? Why shouldn’t we ensure minorities and low-income citizens can vote? It’s time to talk about strengthening our democracy and making it more accountable to the people, and that starts with protecting the right to vote and making it more convenient to do so.

Russ Feingold served as a United States Senator from Wisconsin for 18 years.

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