In the 2012 elections, we saw a glimpse of a more robust and inclusive democracy. Hispanic and youth voters turned out in record numbers, and African Americans may have voted at a higher rate than whites for the first time in U.S. history.
But this turnout happened in spite of the most widespread assault on voting rights that we've seen since the Reconstruction era. Thankfully, courts blocked many of the recent state laws that make it harder to vote. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of citizens -- disproportionately African Americans and Latinos -- had to wait in outrageously long lines and many were improperly forced to cast provisional ballots. While the resolve of voters who stood in line for up to eight hours was inspiring, it showed that election reform is needed. As President Obama said on election night, "We have to fix that."
The war on voting continues as new legislative proposals emerge to further limit accepted forms of voter identification, require proof of citizenship to register to vote, cut opportunities for early voting, and restrict voter registration drives. For example, this month lawmakers in North Carolina introduced a wave of voter-suppression bills that would roll back nearly every advance that North Carolina has won over the past decade. Virginia recently signed several new repressive voting bills into law implementing restrictive voter ID and voter registration requirements, and lawmakers in Arkansas recently overrode a gubernatorial veto of a restrictive photo ID law.
Several states are pushing error-ridden efforts to kick registered voters off the rolls, all while the Supreme Court considers the continuation a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. But we have another choice. We can stand on the side of lawmakers who want to expand democracy. This is a critical time for efforts to reform voting systems and to enshrine a fundamental right to vote in law. Here's how some states are taking action:
Long lines were the story of the 2012 elections. In his State of the Union address, President Obama told the story of 102-year old Desiline Victor, who waited hours in line to vote in North Miami before her tired body gave out -- but in her resolve to vote, she returned later to cast her ballot. In Florida, where the state cut its early voting period nearly in half, reported wait times stretched up to 8 hours. In Pennsylvania and Ohio lines were so long that many voters ultimately gave up and were forced to walk away without voting.
Early voting alleviates long lines, eases the burden on overworked poll workers, and, when administered effectively, increases turnout of eligible voters. The best models allow ample time to cast early ballots, establish convenient locations for voters and allow same day registration. Some states, including North Carolina, Iowa and Wyoming, allow people to register at the same time they cast early ballots, which studies have shown, creates higher voter turnout. Ohio has "Golden Week," a time during the early voting period when voters can register and vote at the same time. In Nevada, voters can cast early votes at multiple locations in their county.
In 2013, even while states like North Carolina, Nebraska, Wisconsin and others push ill-conceived cuts to early voting, fourteen states are considering measures to expand early voting, including battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
Improving Voter Registration
Reports from the 2012 elections show that botched registration rolls caused voters to be turned away or delayed when they found their names missing from the rolls. Even more, an estimated 50 million eligible citizens were not even registered to vote in the 2012 elections.
Several states are considering much-needed reforms to modernize voter registration. New York has proposed automating the transmission of voter registration from the DMV and other social service agencies, and automatically updating address changes when voters move. It would also allow for Election Day correction and pre-registration for 16-year olds.
Florida is considering the automatic voter registration of anyone who applies for or renews a state driver license or ID card. Florida, New York, Texas and Washington have proposed preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds. Illinois is considering requiring universities to send students an email on voter registration during even-numbered election years.
Finally, a number of states may join the growing trend of allowing voters to register online. In 2008, only two states (AZ, WA) had online registration. Now 15 do, and more than half a dozen others are considering legislation to allow for online voter registration. Online registration has been shown to save money and increase the accuracy of voter lists.
We need these kinds of affirmative reforms to counter continued assaults on voting. In North Carolina, lawmakers are fighting back against a slew of repressive voting proposals by introducing the Voting Improvement Act, which champions a very different vision for the state by increasing early-voting weekend hours, expanding same-day voter registration to include Election Day and designating Election Day a state holiday. The bill also mandates an online 21st century voter registration system, requires registration agencies to inform eligible citizens that they may register to vote and institutes high school education requirements on the process of registering to vote.
Protecting Voting as a Fundamental Right
Protecting our democracy starts with protecting the fundamental right to vote. The U.S. is one of only eleven of the 119 democratic countries in the world that do not explicitly provide the right to vote in their Constitutions.
Perhaps we will see an explicit, affirmative right to vote soon in Florida. State Sen. Oscar Braynon recently introduced SB 888, also known as "Desiline's Free and Fair Democracy Act," which would enshrine the right to vote into Florida state law.
If Desiline Victor was emblematic of the problems of the 2012 elections, the legislation that bears her name could be a big part of the solution. The bill ensures that every eligible citizen can cast a ballot and know that it will count. It requires lawmakers to demonstrate that they have a compelling reason before they can enact restrictive voting policies, and they would have to show that voting laws will actually advance their stated goals. These steps essentially take politics out of the equation, ensuring that every eligible citizen can participate in our democracy.
Improving voter registration, expanding early voting and enshrining an explicit, affirmative right to vote under federal law would go a long way toward fixing our broken democracy. In the wake of the spate of bad voting laws that plagued the 2012 elections, momentum is building, state by state, to fight back and ensure that the most enduring promise of our democracy - our right to vote -- is protected.