Nothing is as central to democracy -- or held so sacred within American civic culture -- as the right to vote. Yet this basic exercise has become the subject of considerable debate in state legislatures this year.
For decades, the federal government has sought to make voting easier, through measures such as the Voting Rights Act, the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, and the motor-voter law, which simplified registration. This year, however, numerous states are rolling back early voting and Election Day registration laws, or demanding that voters show government-issued identification at polling places or offer proof of citizenship.
Not all these efforts are bearing fruit. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer in April dramatically halted legislation to end same-day voter registration when he vetoed the bill with a branding iron. But enough bills are moving forward to lead many Democrats to complain that GOP legislators are seeking to disenfranchise vulnerable groups of voters, including African-Americans and college students. You know, the Obama coalition.
Republicans deny any such intention, saying they are merely protecting the sanctity of the ballot. “The goal is to ensure the integrity of the election process and provide a common-sense means of combating voter fraud, and the perception of voter fraud,” Ohio state Rep. Louis Blessing said as his chamber passed a voter identification requirement in March.
The fact that so many states are considering rolling back efforts that sought to make voting easier for citizens represents a shift away from the long-standing trend of recognizing the fundamental nature of the right to vote and its importance for citizens participating in democracy, voting rights experts say.
Throughout American history, there have been arguments about who gets to vote, with new restrictions enacted from time to time. But in recent decades, “It really did seem that universal suffrage was a consensus value, with exceptions at the edge like felons,” says Alex Keyssar of Harvard and author of The Right to Vote. “What is happening here does seem to me to be an attempt to roll it back.”
The desire to place limits that fall most heavily on certain kinds of voters appears to be driven by partisanship, Keyssar says. “Voting is like motherhood and apple pie, especially for ‘my’ people. If ‘your’ people want to vote, I’m not so sure.”