A New Movement Can Help Reboot America’s Voting System
Earlier this week, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for bold reforms to America’s voting system. She suggested that all Americans be automatically registered to vote at age 18, and that voting privileges be extended to ex-felons. She also called for the full restoration of the Voting Rights Act, which lifted many of the barriers to black people participating in our democracy.
Clinton’s remarks underscore the need for voters of color to be engaged—and, ultimately, increase our participation in the political process. Republican-controlled state legislatures are promoting various measures—such as requiring voter identification cards—to limit the risk of voter fraud. The truth is, voter fraud rarely occurs.
There is no question that partisan politics play a role in the war over voting rights. Democrats stand to gain from higher voter participation by people of color and the young. However, there is evidence to substantiate claims that these GOP voter suppression laws have an explicitly racist intent in blocking the black and brown vote. According to an analysis by the liberal-leaning public policy organization Demos, white people who live in the states with the most restrictive voter ID laws are more likely to have racist views toward black people.
That’s why a new movement is necessary to restore and expand the voting rights that people fought and sometimes died for. These are rights that have often been taken for granted—that is, until the arrival of Barack Obama on the national political scene. He was sent to the White House by a multiracial coalition, and he drew many new black voters. In 2012, for the first time, black voter participation was at a higher rate than for whites. According to the Pew Research Center, black turnout drives black electoral clout. Nevertheless, our voting rights are still taken for granted too often. In the South, there are nearly 3.7 million unregistered blacks and 4 million unregistered Asian Americans and Latinos. If these people registered to vote and showed up at the polls, they’d be a powerful force—and a threat to Republicans.
Automatic registration makes sense, given the long lines, bureaucratic snafus, and lost votes that have plagued polling places across the country. Millions of voter records are incorrect. Many people cannot carry their voter registration with them when they move. An estimated 24 percent of eligible voters are not registered. Sixty percent of the unregistered are the so-called Rising American Electorate—which includes unmarried women, people of color, and people under 30, and who comprise 53 percent of the eligible voting population. Meanwhile, seniors, who are among the groups disproportionately impacted by voter ID laws, have the best turnout of any age group. There’s proof that automatic registration works: Oregon, the first state to implement automatic registration, achieved the highest voter turnout rate, at 73 percent, in 2014.
The Clinton proposal will be no easy feat—especially with a Republican-controlled Congress. This year, there are various bills across the U.S. to expand and restrict access to voting.
The right to vote doesn’t need to be a partisan issue, or racialized. The stakes are high. The wealthiest Americans are effectively determining the outcomes of our elections and how our government operates. Low voter participation hurts our communities—and our country. We can’t afford to have black and Latino voices locked out of democracy.
Ultimately, in the post-Obama era, blacks, Latinos—and all Americans—must strategically organize to drive change. People will get engaged and to the polls if they understand what is at stake and how their lives are affected. The nation is witnessing a great deal of energy around the Black Lives Matter movement, which is tied to a host of socioeconomic and political issues. An effort to connect the killing of black bodies in the street to the civic death that people of color face with voter suppression could prove an effective organizing strategy.