Getting into the habit of democracy

Posted by Allegra Chapman on November 12, 2014


Voter Registration

A few days ago, a friend bemoaned that she hadn’t been exercising for some time. With work and family obligations, she just couldn’t find the time to run, even though she loves it and she knows it’s good for her. “I need to get into the habit,” she said.

Our country, too, needs to instill new habits. For the past few decades, and particularly over the past couple of years, our collective civic engagement has suffered. We just don’t have down the habit of democracy.

This most recent election demonstrates how bad it’s gotten. Roughly 36.4% of eligible voters cast ballots this November – a new low, even for midterms. Of course, this figure doesn’t capture the number of people who appeared at their polling place, sometimes waiting in line for hours, only to be told when they reached the front that their name didn’t appear on the registration lists. Or they were in the wrong place. Or they lacked one of the few acceptable photo IDs now required to vote.

With all these obstacles in place to the exercise of what many believe to be the most cherished of all constitutional rights, it’s no wonder the numbers are what they are, and that trust in national institutions is at an all-time low. This isn’t a case of apathy; it’s a straight-up case of voter suppression. And so far, the suppressers are winning.

For too long now - and particularly after the Supreme Court, last year, gutted the Voting Rights Act section that once required locations with histories of discrimination to submit their proposed voting changes for preclearance – we, as states and as a nation, have done too little to ease hurdles between the ballot box and the voter. The whittling away of good reforms, like same day registration in North Carolina and early voting in Ohio, plus the imposition of new onerous restrictions, like the photo ID requirement in Texas – one that allows a gun enthusiast to vote but not a student, have turned voting into an endurance sport requiring heavy admissions fees. So much for your constitutional right.

Regressive laws, while bearing the brunt of responsibility in keeping people from the polls, don’t tell the whole story. We’re failing across the board in basic administration of elections, and no state – whether blue or red – is immune from that. This isn’t just a matter of which laws affected what race’s outcome; it’s about ensuring that each eligible voter’s vote is appropriately counted to ensure they’ll keep coming back. To ensure the habit forms. In this election alone, we saw voting machines break down in several states, with some in Florida eating votes before individuals could cast them; extraordinarily long lines in Chicago, where some voters waited up to nine hours to vote; numerous of Georgians showing up at polling places only to find their information hadn’t been transferred from registration forms to rolls; and poll workers completely misinformed about which IDs are acceptable to vote in states now requiring them. With inadequate tools, information, and infrastructure, we’re setting up our poll-workers – and elections systems – for failure.

End result? Voter suppression. Across the country. Encouraging eligible citizens in this landscape to get out the vote is akin to urging someone to start running after her sneakers have been stolen. Without the necessary reforms, the franchise simply isn’t available to a good swath of Americans. This point is particularly clear with respect to the new photo ID laws spreading like wildfire across the country: when costs related to their obtainment range from $75 to $175, those with less disposable income and transportation – people of color, seniors, students, veterans, and those with disabilities – simply can’t get them. How that specifically impacts turnout, based on current registration numbers, is just one part of the equation (as tricky as it may be to identify).  Just as important is how it impacts an individual’s voting experience, and his or her likelihood of returning to the polls as a result of bad law – or bad information. As Judge Posner recently noted, in his dissent to the 7th Circuit’s upholding of Wisconsin’s photo ID law, (later knocked down by the Supreme Court for this past election), “There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.”

Same can be said for the motivation of those tearing down same day registration. Or cutting back on early voting. Or failing to adopt needed measures to streamline the administrative process at the polls. All point to an attempt to keep certain voters from the polls. Where will it stop?

Because of these new laws and outdated administrative practices, our bodies of governance don’t look like the electorate of this country. In other words, the legislators’ suppressive tactics worked. An overhaul to our elections system is needed, and it’s been invoked time and again. The call is all the clearer this time around. Rep. Nancy Pelosi has asked colleagues to convene and find solutions to voter suppression tactics; Sen. Bernie Sanders is advancing an Election Day holiday; Sen. Rand Paul urges a federal requirement that the right to vote be restored to all formerly incarcerated individuals; and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has recommended a revamping of registration practices.

Add to this list the Voting Rights Amendment Act, introduced by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner in the House in January of this year, but on which there have been no hearings held. This, a demand for return of the federal law whose evisceration led to the disenfranchisement or perhaps millions, remains unmoved. You can add your name today to the hundreds of thousands who agree we need to restore the right to vote.

Like most things, an act needs to be repeated for it to truly take hold, for it to become a habit. If we’re to demand that our citizens roll up their sleeves to exert some civic muscle – and to do it regularly – then we’ve got to ensure free and fair access to the ballot box for all eligible Americans. With common sense reforms, at the state and federal level, we can give our democracy a fresh start and give every American a chance to get in the habit of casting a vote.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Voting and Elections

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