Barriers to the ballot box: new restrictions underscore the need for voting laws enforcement.

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Date: Aug. 2012
From: Human Rights(Vol. 39, Issue 1)
Publisher: American Bar Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,572 words
Lexile Measure: 1580L

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A spate of new legislation, executive orders, ballot initiatives, and administrative practices is making it harder to register to vote and cast a ballot. These new laws could impede access for more than 5 million eligible voters in 2012. Understanding the implications of these proposals is imperative so Americans don't repeat history.


Today, we are witnessing the greatest assault on voting in over a century. A spate of new legislation, executive orders, ballot initiatives, and administrative practices "effectuate a trifecta of voter suppression," making it harder to register to vote, to cast a ballot, and to have a vote counted. Not since the post-Reconstruction era that heralded poll taxes and literacy tests has there been so much government action conditioning access to vote--through new rules restricting voter registration, advance voting, voter identification, purge practices, and more. These new laws could impede access for more than 5 million eligible voters in 2012.

While of interest due to their partisan motivations and potential political consequences, the impact of these measures extends beyond electoral politics to the heart of how we define democracy--with potentially long-lasting implications. The phenomenon underscores a contentious debate--one that is playing out in legal challenges to these measures--of whether voting is a right that cannot be burdened absent rigorous scrutiny, or whether it is a privilege that can more easily be conditioned. These debates on how we condition voting reveal America's distasteful schisms in privilege and power, race and class, and judgments about the worth of a person's citizenship and humanity.

As a nation, we have long struggled with the concept of electoral democracy. Though not specifically delineated as a fundamental right, there are more constitutional amendments protecting the right to vote than any other, guaranteeing that the right to vote cannot be abridged on account of race, sex, language, ethnicity, religion, residency, payment of a poll tax, or age. The Supreme Court long ago explained that voting is "regarded as a fundamental political right, because [it is] preservative of all rights." And despite the Court's pronouncements that "[t]he right to vote freely for the candidate of one's choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government," and that "every voter is equal to every other voter," our voting processes have never reflected the ideal that all citizens have an equal opportunity to cast a ballot. From our nation's beginnings, which limited voting to only white male landowners, we have fought bloody--indeed deadly--battles to expand access, paving the way for significant court decisions and landmark federal legislation like the Voting Rights Act, and later the National Voter Registration Act and the Help America Vote Act.

But legislative activity in the states since the 2010 midterm elections marks a sharp departure from the trend of expanding access, with more than 180 restrictive voting bills introduced in forty-one states since last year. My organization, Advancement Project, has characterized this as "the most significant rollback of voting rights...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A303351325