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How Congress Can Fix a Slew of Voting Problems

A pair of bills would break down barriers to voting, especially for people of color.

September 24, 2020
woman placing ballot in voting box.
Photo Credit: Michael B. Thomas/Getty

This origin­ally appeared in the Boston Globe.

With a month and a half left until Elec­tion Day, far too many Amer­ic­ans are worried about whether their votes will count or the elec­tion will be fair. One culprit: Pres­id­ent Trump, who has been waging an unpre­ced­en­ted and relent­less campaign to under­mine faith in the legit­im­acy of our elec­tions. To be clear, those attacks are built on lies. The US elec­tion system is secure and resi­li­ent, and it is patri­otic, not prob­lem­atic, for public offi­cials to adjust voting meth­ods to ensure that every eligible citizen can cast a ballot without risk­ing their health. Nonethe­less, the pres­id­ent’s insi­di­ous claims reson­ate with some Amer­ic­ans, in part because our demo­cratic system indeed has funda­mental weak­nesses — just not the ones he suggests.

This year’s primar­ies have shone a spot­light on some of the ways our elec­tions still oper­ate to exclude many voters: Hours-long lines at the polls in major popu­la­tion centers. Plum­met­ing voter regis­tra­tion numbers. Hundreds of thou­sands of validly cast ballots uncoun­ted. And more than 180 lawsuits pending across the coun­try chal­len­ging obstacles to voting safely by mail or at the polls during the pandemic. The right to vote should be stur­dier than that.

These prob­lems don’t afflict all voters equally: Black and brown voters bear the brunt of voting barri­ers. When Milwau­kee closed all but five of its 182 polling places for its April primary, it depressed turnout by 8.6 percent over­all, and by 10.2 percent among Black voters. The concen­tra­tion of long lines in communit­ies of color is not new; in 2018, for example, Latino voters waited on aver­age 46 percent longer, and Black voters 45 percent longer, than white voters. And multiple stud­ies show that mail ballots cast by nonwhite voters are twice as likely to be rejec­ted as those cast by white voters.

This elec­tion is play­ing out amid a long-over­due reck­on­ing with systemic racism and chronic racial inequal­ity across all our insti­tu­tions — from poli­cing, to educa­tion, to health care. To solve any of these urgent prob­lems, our voting system must face a similar reck­on­ing. Exist­ing voting laws cannot deliver a fully fair and equal system for all Amer­ic­ans (even though they are strong enough to allow courts to clear some egre­gious voting obstacles this year). There is too much room for vote suppres­sion, discrim­in­a­tion, and manip­u­la­tion of rules for partisan gain.

To build the truly repres­ent­at­ive demo­cracy of our future, the guard­rails against discrim­in­a­tion in voting must be strengthened. But that is not enough to root out the systemic racism already baked into the system, nor to ensure that our demo­cracy is truly respons­ive to voters. Our core demo­cratic systems need a funda­mental reboot to ensure that they work for all Amer­ic­ans.

Fortu­nately, the approach we need already enjoys signi­fic­ant support among Demo­crats in Congress. Last year, the House passed the For the People Act — as well as the Voting Rights Advance­ment Act. Together, these meas­ures would trans­form our demo­cracy while signi­fic­antly advan­cing racial equity in our polit­ical system.

The Advance­ment Act would undo the most seri­ous blow to voting rights of the last half-century: the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the core of the land­mark 1965 Voting Rights Act and ushered in a host of discrim­in­at­ory voting schemes, from strict voter ID require­ments to reduc­tions in polling places.

The For the People Act would move our demo­cracy forward while coun­ter­ing some of the most harm­ful and discrim­in­at­ory voter suppres­sion tactics of the past decade. Its key provi­sions include nation­wide auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, along with online and same-day regis­tra­tion. This would add millions to the rolls while prevent­ing offi­cials from manip­u­lat­ing the voter regis­tra­tion process — such as through discrim­in­at­ory voter purges — to suppress votes.

A mandate to restore voting rights to all Amer­ic­ans with past crim­inal convic­tions after they are released from incar­cer­a­tion would elim­in­ate one of the most power­ful vestiges of Jim Crow. It would also fix a troub­ling recent court ruling that allowed the Flor­ida legis­lature to disen­fran­chise more than 775,000 return­ing citizens unless they pay off legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions they cannot afford. And a nation­wide minimum of 15 early-voting days, includ­ing week­ends, would offer conveni­ence and reduce lines at the polls while push­ing back against discrim­in­at­ory cuts some states have made to voting hours.

These and other provi­sions would strike a power­ful blow for racial equity in our voting system. Had they been in place this year, states would also have been much better prepared to run safe and fair elec­tions during the coronavirus pandemic.

But our demo­cracy prob­lems go beyond vote suppres­sion to a host of other issues: partisan gerry­man­der­ing, elec­tion secur­ity, and a private campaign-fund­ing system that gives a tiny cohort of unrep­res­ent­at­ive major donors dispro­por­tion­ate sway over policy. The For the People Act tackles those too. A core compon­ent is a small donor-match­ing system that would amplify small contri­bu­tions to federal candid­ates, expand­ing the influ­ence of ordin­ary Amer­ic­ans and break­ing down barri­ers for a more diverse array of candid­ates to mount viable campaigns without resort­ing to big-money networks.

Our demo­cracy faces an urgent chal­lenge. But this is also a moment of extraordin­ary oppor­tun­ity: For the first time in years, the health of our demo­cracy has become a cent­ral issue of public concern. We have the tools to strengthen our demo­cracy for every­one while strik­ing a blow to the broader systemic racism it reflects. We should not let this chance go to waste.