The next frontiers for voting rights

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Amidst rather uniformly dismal election results for those of us committed to a vigorous collective response to the challenges that face us, including the truly concerning recall of judges over disputes of ideology in Iowa (a major blow to the doctrine of judicial impartiality and separation of powers), there was one bright spot:

Kansas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to strip the legislature of the power to deny Kansas citizens with mental illnesses the right to vote.

It’s one of those things that I can’t imagine 289,740 people voting against really, but it’s still encouraging that 482,222 voted for it, and especially rewarding to see the grassroots campaign that mental health advocates, including a strong consumer contingent, put together to take advantage of this opportunity to educate the public about mental illness, civil rights, and the importance of equality.

So, see–something good from November 2, 2010.

But, especially in the aftermath of Election Day, we’ve got serious work to do, and not just to protect critical policies and continue to push for progressive advances in tax policy, the social safety net, economic recovery, entitlement reform, health care reform, K-12 and higher education and, well, just about every other aspect of American life.

We’ve also got to make voting rights a top priority.

We need to expand suffrage, and vigorously defend it, not just because increasing the number of people who can and do vote is a good way to ensure that we’ll be happier with the outcome. We need to prioritize voting rights, too, because it restores the American ideal of an engaged citizenry, and it makes us proud of who we are and what we can do, together.

Our finest moments have been when we realize that the rights of citizenship are the most secure, and the most honored, when they’re extended broadly and valued deeply.

On the list that demands our attention:

  • Commitment to easing the process of re-entry for ex-felons, and revisiting the process of even temporarily denying voting rights to those who commit crimes–this is important not just because it expands the right to vote but also because it sends a message to those who are incarcerated: “we don’t want you cut off from the society into which we’ll expect you to successfully reintegrate”
  • Defense against restrictive photo ID requirements–I want to scream every time someone says, “but you even need to show ID to see a movie.” Um, last time I checked, seeing an R-rated movie is NOT a constitutionally-protected right. Voting is. Unless we’re going to provide free, easily available photo identification to all American citizens, with exceptions for those with religious objections to photographs, requiring photo identification to vote is a poll tax, it’s abhorrent, and we can’t stand for this attack on democracy masquerading as concern with (largely invented) “voter fraud”. I almost wrecked my car when I heard about the Obama Administration dropping its legal challenge to Georgia’s voter identification requirements. This could move us back to 1964, and our nation can’t afford that.
  • Aggressive protection of voter privacy and the integrity of the election system–I am not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think that the private companies that manufacture voting machines are intent on overtaking our elections. But I am very concerned about two things: first, that there’s enough truth to the threat of that scenario to make some people wary of the election process and, second, that it does represent another example of turning some of our most sacred public functions over to private companies. There are some things that government should just do itself, whether or not it’s the most efficient, because to farm it out just looks bad and, well, running the democratic process is one of those.
  • A constitutional amendment specifically guaranteeing the right to vote–108 democratic nations have this language, while the U.S. and 10 others don’t. Words do matter, and having these words in the U.S. Constitution could provide the legal foundation for challenges to all of the exclusions above, too, setting the stage for a reorientation towards an affirmative right to civic participation that has to be disproven, rather than the effective opposite, which is the status quo.

    It’s time for a national conversation not just about the results of our elections but the process of them: do we want paper ballots again? what about open-source electronic voting technology? should we have mandatory public audits of elections? if so, who should conduct them? how would we engage the public in oversight of elections, and how could this make a difference in how people engage in the acts of democracy? why can’t people register to vote on Election Day?

    Did you see any violations of voting rights this past Election Day? Did your clients vote? If not, why not? What changes to voting laws might facilitate their participation? What are your thoughts about expanding suffrage rights in the next decade?

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