Preserve Our Democracy: Protect Voters' Rights

Voters fill the polling booths on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Montpelier, Vt.  (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Voters fill the polling booths on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

As a nation, we've come a long way since voting was reserved for landholding white men. But if we don't act now, new threats to voting rights could reverse that progress -- and threaten the vitality of our democracy.

Though slow and unsteady, the gradual expansion of voting rights in the United States has been one of our country's most significant achievements. Over time, this expansion has given millions a political voice, and it has been an important demonstration of how we can improve our nation through active, participatory democracy.

But now, groups of politicians and their supporters, seeking to steer outcomes of elections in their favor, are working to restrict access to voting. It's working: 22 states have enacted new voting rights restrictions since 2011. A bill passed by North Carolina's legislature, for instance, instituted a strict voter ID requirement, reduced the window for early voting, and limited same-day registration all at once. And with the midterm elections approaching, we will soon feel the impact of the Supreme Court's decision last year to roll back parts of the Voting Rights Act. We need to face up to these threats before it's too late.

One reason we should take these rollbacks so seriously is that they could prove extremely difficult to undo. Making gains on voting rights has always been a long, hard slog. Even the narrowest constitutional protections protecting minorities' right to vote weren't on the books until 1870. Most women couldn't vote in the United States until well into the 20th century. And the Voting Rights Act, which barred racial disenfranchisement in many forms, wasn't passed until 1965. Today these protections seem so basic that it's hard to believe they didn't always exist - and that's why we should celebrate and work to protect and expand them.

Some concerned citizens and voting rights advocates have been doing just that. Thanks to dozens of organizations like the League of Women Voters, NAACP, Rock the Vote, the Advancement Project and the Brennan Center for Justice, we've made other important advancements more recently, such as improvements in same-day registration and early voting in some parts of the country.

Unfortunately, forces looking to undo voting protections have also gained traction in the last few years. During that time, conservative-led state legislatures have made a big push to restrict voting rights by enacting legislation that requires voters to show photo identification, or places limits on voter registration efforts or early voting, for instance. Whatever the form, the efforts share a common goal: To drive down turnout among groups they think are likely to vote Democratic, with no concern about disenfranchising them in the process.

The Supreme Court's ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case last year could have a similarly damaging effect. By throwing out a crucial portion of the Voting Rights Act that required federal oversight of voting-related changes in areas with a history of disenfranchisement, it has opened the door to an unprecedented rollback of voter protections. In the year since, conservatives have already taken steps to weaken voting rights in places like North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, and that could just be the beginning.

Of course, proponents of these changes claim that they aren't harmful, and that they're necessary to prevent fraud and protect the integrity of our voting system. Judges, experts and even a five-year investigation by George W. Bush's Justice Department have found little evidence to support their arguments.

Thankfully, there are a few simple things we can do to fight back.

First, we need to register to vote, and vote. There is no more powerful way to make our voices heard on voting issues than by exercising our right to vote. And we should help others do the same, both in our own communities and more broadly by supporting get-out-the-vote groups.

We also need to support efforts to make voting more accessible and voter protections stronger. Conservative groups have been working hard - and spending big - to do the opposite. Groups working on behalf of voters need our active support.

Finally, we need to call on Congress to reinstate the full Voting Rights Act and implement other protections. You might think that's a tall order, given how divided Congress is these days. But if enough people speak out, politicians will start to listen.

It's valuable to remember what President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, urging a divided Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act: "Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right."

In the face of this grave threat to voting rights, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to take his argument to heart.