Saving Democracy: A Priority for the 113th Congress

As the 113th Congress begins its work, the list of issues in dire need of thoughtful attention is a long one. One that has to be high on that list is addressing the dismal state of our democratic process. I'm talking about the hodge-podge of election laws and regulations across the country that mean where you live may determine whether you can cast a ballot with ease or with difficulty -- or cast one at all. Interest in our elections process typically reaches its peak during the campaign season and wanes immediately following each election. Too often we put aside election and voting problems until the next cycle rolls around, when it's too late and efforts by some to undermine access to the ballot are in full swing once again.

What we need is a reinvigorated spirit of action toward making voting accessible to all -- the spirit that has marked progress throughout our history. Our nation started by limiting the right to vote to white male property owners, and in 1919 we allowed women into the club. Not until 1965 did we finally commit to ensuring the vote to the descendants of slaves. These advances were accompanied by popular struggles. Women marched in the streets and chained themselves to the White House fence for the right to vote. After World War II, African-Americans launched an epochal movement of demonstrations and civil disobedience, often brutally suppressed, to exercise rights they supposedly already had. They finally won when the poll tax was abolished and the Voting Rights Act passed. After the debacle of Bush v. Gore, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in the spirit of all the struggles that had gone on before -- one of securing the right to vote. Progress was hardly steady but in the end we moved forward.

But 2012 will be known as the year when concerted efforts to roll back access to the ballot took hold across the country, backed by those with an ideological and even partisan agenda. One man, Hans von Spakovsky, a right-wing lawyer and legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, found an attentive audience for his book detailing his long-held conviction that voter fraud was rampant. A constellation of Tea Party activists, business-backed right-wing groups, and conservative state legislators went to work on the "problem," despite the lack of evidence to demonstrate their thesis. Changes in the electorate that now include more minorities and fewer whites somehow coincided with the new-found popularity of his view among state legislators.

The result has been a rash of new state laws -- at least 25 -- making registration more difficult. Liberalized voting procedures like early voting were attacked, and onerous photo ID laws with effects similar to the outlawed poll tax took hold. Most of these measures sprung up overnight following the 2010 elections. Worse, coordinated efforts called "caging" were mounted by private groups in 2012 to challenge the right of individual, named registered voters with baseless accusations about their eligibility to vote. These challenges wrongly forced individuals who had been legally voting, in many cases for decades, to bear the burden of proving to challengers that their votes were legitimate.

It simply cannot be that whether and how we exercise a democratic right so fundamental as voting depends on the vagaries of what party is in power or what ideology holds sway for the moment. We need national legislation that sets the same bar for everyone -- north, south, east and west. Just as the Bill of Rights applies equally in every corner of the U.S., the right to vote must be equally easy to exercise as an integral part of being a U.S. citizen no matter where you live. In 2012 the defense of the right to vote fell mainly to legal advocacy groups and the US Department of Justice. In 2013 that defense must shift to Congress.

Last year, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) introduced the Voter Empowerment Act. That bill would ensure access to the ballot, the integrity of the process, and the accountability of the result by addressing voter registration issues, polling and vote counting standards, and protecting against deception and fraudulent practices, among other concerns. That's the kind of bill we need on the table this year.

On election night in his acceptance speech, President Obama noted the long lines and hours-long wait that many endured to cast a ballot. He could have added that these lines and waits rarely occur in suburban or rural areas. They are almost always confined to working class and minority communities. "We have to fix that," he said. Indeed we do. Otherwise we will come perilously close to accepting the logic of the colonial era, that only white males of means deserve a voice in our future.