In the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections, HuffPost Opinion asked writers to examine the many ways that voting ― a fundamental and hard-won civil right ― is imperiled in the United States. In far too many cases, Americans are blocked from exercising that right. This piece is part of that series, Democracy Denied.
The civil rights movement is on the ballot this November.
Don’t fool yourself for a second by thinking the movement is a closed chapter in history, or that its work is finished. The struggle for civil rights goes on in 2018 ― and just as in 1870 and 1965, it runs straight through the right to vote.
That hard-won right is under attack. In the last several years, politicians have become increasingly brazen in their drive to block people of color from participating in our democracy.
For proof, consider Georgia, where I serve as state director for the voting rights organization Let America Vote. Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary state who is running for governor, has purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls and is now refusing to process 53,000 voter registrations, primarily from black Georgians.
Local officials, meanwhile, have been trying to limit voting periods and close polling locations ― most often those serving African-American communities. In 2015, officials attempted to close nine of 10 polling places in Hancock County; in 2017, six of eight polls were threatened in Irwin County; and in 2018, officials moved to shutter seven of nine polling sites in Randolph County. In every case, they backed down only after civil rights groups spoke up and attracted national attention.
Things may actually be worse in North Carolina, where Republicans have pursued scheme after scheme to complicate voting and excise people of color from the process. They’ve engaged in blatant, egregious racial and partisan gerrymandering. They’ve purged voters from the rolls and cut early voting days and times.
They enacted a voter ID law that a court struck down for targeting African Americans “with almost surgical precision.” This year, they’re trying to write extreme voter ID laws into the state constitution ― along with attacks on gubernatorial power explicitly aimed at giving GOP lawmakers greater control over election administration.
And while Georgia and North Carolina may be the most aggressive voting-rights offenders in the country at the moment, they’re hardly the only ones.
Poll closures and voter purges have been documented all across the country. Voter ID has spread widely over the last decade, followed in some states by insidious attempts to restrict access to needed identification by closing key state offices. Alabama in 2015 moved to close 31 of some 75 driver’s license offices before relenting amid an outcry. This year, Texas introduced and then backed off from a similar plan.
What’s to be done? Election administration is a matter of law and policy, but the fundamental answer to ensuring the right to vote is moral.
“For too long and in too many places, politicians have tried to shape the electorate to match their politics.”
Politicians ― and let’s state it plainly; they’re almost always Republicans ― must stop manipulating our electoral system for their own gain. They must answer to a higher calling than their own re-election. They must hold themselves to a higher standard of civil engagement than that of the Jim Crow era.
For too long and in too many places, politicians have tried to shape the electorate to match their politics. We must commit to a more responsive, moral politics that values every voice in our democracy.
Some states are doing just that: in recent years more than a dozen states have adopted automatic voter registration (AVR), a powerful shift in elections administration that registers voters or updates their information anytime they interact with state government. AVR eliminates a major barrier for would-be voters, eases administration for election officials, improves accuracy in voter databases and makes elections more secure. And experience from recent elections clearly shows it increases participation.
States could also ease restrictions on voting rights for former offenders. In Florida, Iowa and Kentucky, voters permanently lose the franchise with a felony conviction ― even after they’ve served their sentence, paid their fines, fees and restitution, rebuilt their lives and reintegrated into society.
Laws in many other states are less stringent but have similar intentions. None of them serve society ― they just piggyback on existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in criminal justice to disenfranchise millions of Americans and sideline already marginalized groups from the democratic process.
There’s more. Policymakers should end voter purges and repeal ID laws. And Congress must update and upgrade the Voting Rights Act.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013 eviscerated the law, neutering the provision that allowed the Department of Justice to vet voting provisions in places with a history of voter suppression.
It’s been a disaster. For proof, consider the report released last month by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Federal action on voting rights has cratered since the decision, the report found ― including enforcement of provisions that remain in effect. Discrimination against minority voters, the head of the commission told The New York Times, is ”enduring and pernicious.”
“Politicians ― and let’s state it plainly; they’re almost always Republicans ― must stop manipulating our electoral system for their own gain.”
Congress must move swiftly to update the Voting Rights Act and identify a new list of jurisdictions where a recent history of blatant, anti-democratic voter suppression demands federal review and approval before new measures can be adopted. Policies abound that would safeguard our electoral system and make voting more accessible for everyone, if politicians are only willing to embrace them.
The election looming before us represents a key moment that will decide whether we embrace our increasingly diverse society or retreat into division and injustice. For years, division and injustice have been on the march, and this is our chance to push it back.
The Civil Rights Movement is not just history. The march from Selma to Montgomery was not the end of the struggle. And the Civil Rights Act of 1965 did not secure voting rights in perpetuity.
The work goes on, for the activists on the streets and the canvassers knocking doors today, the voters at the ballot box in November, and the lawmakers sworn into office next January.
The work goes on, in other words, for all of us.
Porsha White is the Georgia State Director for Let America Vote.