As the march from Selma for voting rights continues in our country, there is a growing movement to end the most anti-democratic features of election law today. Many of the organizations fighting for voting rights convened at the 9th Annual Voting and Elections Summit in Washington, D.C. last month, mindful of the avalanche of voter suppression bills since 2010.
Strict voter ID requirements now cover 20 states. Another 12 states have shortened voting hours, early and weekend voting, and reduced the number of polling places where minority and poor voters live.
The conference, which attracted 250 people, was sponsored by Fair Vote, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Overseas and U.S. Vote Foundations. Among the delegates were some 30 local election officials and state, county and municipal elected representatives.
Pointing to last year’s midterm election results, keynote speaker Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota warned that “the right doesn’t want everyone to vote. The fewer people that vote, the better chance for success of the Republican electoral agenda.” Despite recent setbacks, he urged the delegates to organize and fight, not to fall for the idea that there is a popular base for this kind of voter suppression. In Minnesota, despite initial support for voter ID in the polls, an initiative was passed to prohibit ID requirements. “We know that the right to vote…can be won at the ballot box.”
He urged the delegates to mobilize around the Voter Protection Access Act, efforts to reverse the Supreme Court’s gutting of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and a Right to Vote Amendment to the Constitution that he is sponsoring with Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. “We need a fighting plan to help people vote.”
Pointing out that there are 8,000 voting jurisdictions in the country, Ellison called for a national law to guarantee the right to register to vote on Election Day, noting that states which have same-day registration have the highest voter turnouts.
Speaking of the 5,000,000 Americans who have been convicted of a felony, Ellison said that except for Vermont, none have the right to vote while in prison and in some states it is almost impossible to regain voting rights after release. No states automatically restore voting rights, affecting over 1,000,000 people.
Ellison also focused on Campaign financing laws and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision which have opened the floodgates of money for corporations and the very rich.
Panels focused on technological fixes to voting systems, engaging and protecting voters and especially young voters, the role of Latino voters, the inequities inherent in “winner take all” elections and the difficulties of voting for Americans who live abroad.
While the technology panel dealt with “new” ways to make voting easier including internet voting, the focus was on finding ways to relate to young voters already tuned into technology and using those tools to engage youth with politics and voting including keeping voting lists up to date, making it easy to change your registration if you move and register online.
Panelists argued that voting should be easy. Voters should not be treated as if they do not belong at the polls. Paul Herrnson of the Roper Institute at the University of Connecticut emphasized that voting is about conferring power and should lead to confidence in the system and government, not the cynicism which our current system generates.
The panel on protecting the right to vote addressed suppression efforts around the country. Andrew Aydin, policy advisor to Congressman John Lewis, talked directly to the attack on the Voting Rights Act. “No one is holding the Congress’ feet to the fire,” he said. He also argued for a grassroots approach to campaigning. “We spend most of our money on television,” not meeting voters where they are. For many young people the number one issue is student loans. “They don’t vote because they are crushed by debt.”
T.C. Muhammad of the Hip Hop Caucus warned the Summit that “demonstrations without legislation lead to frustration.” He also pointed out that too often candidates are presented to the community by political parties instead of coming out of the communities. “Candidates,” he said, “should run on our platform, not theirs.” He also challenged the ‘conventional’ wisdom of how to campaign. When we spend money it is too often to identify and turn out our voters, not new voters,” he said. He also warned that “there is no such thing as an off year election, this is a continuous war.”
Vanessa Cardenas of the Center for American Progress detailed the changing demographics of the American electorate. Trend lines show that the United States will be a majority “minority” country after 2043. Much of this growth will be Hispanic Americans born in this country. Every month 50,000 Latinos (of whom 90 percent are born here) turn 18. In 2012 there were 11,000,000 Latinos who voted, but 12,000,000 who did not. This results in a lack of Latino representation at all levels.
Fair Vote focused on the anti-democratic features of the U.S. election system, most notably the Electoral College, which tends to give greater weight to rural states. Their goal is to ensure election of the president by popular vote. Rob Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, told the group that government should be responsible for getting everyone registered to vote. He also argued that single member Congressional districts combined with “winner take all” elections are inherently undemocratic, leaving the losing side with no voice at all.
The Political Action Commission of the Communist Party USA has issued a pamphlet, “Save Democracy – Stop the Attack on Voting – Expand Voting Rights,” as part of this broad effort for voting rights.
Photo: Gerry Broome/AP