Voting rights: What can we do in our state?

America’s progress has always depended expanding voting rights. When more people have a say, government is more representative, responsive, and accountable.

Opponents of progress know that they can’t turn back time on voting rights, so instead they make it harder to vote. These efforts intensified after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling (Shelby County v. Holder) that undercut the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It opened the door to new voter ID requirements and other restrictions in over a dozen states.

Most of these restrictions were passed under the specter of “voter fraud”—a nonexistent problem that Republican state legislatures use for political cover. At the national level, Donald Trump promoted the same lie for months before establishing a “Commission on Election Integrity”. Many fear that this commission (led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has a history of voter suppression schemes)  will simply serve as an precursor to passing restrictive measures through Congress.

How much does this matter? One study found that voter ID laws may have reduced turnout by 200,000 voters in Wisconsin—where Trump won by just 20,000 votes. State and local elections often hinge on even smaller margins. Protecting voting rights and access are critical to any other political change.

So the question is: What can your group do about it?

Assess voting rights in your state

Start with the Brennan Center’s page on proposed voting laws around the country. OurStates also has a map linking to the legislative status of each bill. These pages will give you a snapshot of what’s happening already.

But don’t let currently pending legislation set your agenda. To see how things may have gotten worse in recent years, check out the ACLU’s map of suppression laws enacted from 2012-2016; the Brennan Center has a similar map (they have different data for some states, so it’s worth checking both). The ACLU also tracks criminal disenfranchisement: states like Florida and Iowa have permanently stripped voting rights from people convicted of felonies, even after they serve their sentences, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Finally, the ability to vote depends on effective election administration. After all, what good is the “right” to vote, if the nearest polling site is three hours away and you have to spend another three hours waiting in line? Pew Charitable Trusts ranks states on an “Election Performance Index” based on voter turnout, wait times, online registration, and other factors. See how your state stacks up. You can also look directly at election turnout across states. Is your state doing better or worse than others?

Find the other groups working on this

There’s a good chance that other organizations are already addressing voting in your state. Maybe they could use your grassroots muscle.

Check for state or regional affiliates of national groups like ACLU, MALDEF, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, NAACP, and Common Cause. You might also find that national organizations are involved in legislation or lawsuits, even if they don’t have locally based staff. And look for community groups that aren’t focused voting rights, but are active on the topic anyway because they work with people who are impacted by voter suppression.

By searching the news for mentions of pending legislation or problems with voting access, you can often spot active groups that are holding press conferences or rallies, or have quotes in the news. Reach out to learn more about their work.

Decide what to pursue and how

From this point, voting rights is not so different from many other issues you work on. Decide what your group supports, what you can accomplish, and how to get it done. If there’s pending legislation, pressure your state representative and senator to join as co-sponsors. If there’s no legislation pending, the Fair Elections Legal Network has sample bills that you can use.

This issue will become more critical as elections approach. Keep an eye on potential changes if you have special elections this year, and in advance of the 2018 mid-terms. Protecting voting rights and access is foundational to democracy.

Further resources


Image by Mrs. Gemstone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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