voting rights

Voter Purges Show Why We Need a Constitutional Right to Vote

Threats to the right to vote have become a standard feature of partisan politics. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most important political trends of the 21st century has been the abandonment by most Republicans of the once-bipartisan cause of voting rights. It’s become an ongoing national tragedy thanks to the conjunction of two events: the evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Roberts Court in 2013 (the Shelby County v. Holder decision), and the sweep of state legislatures by a Tea Party–inflected GOP in 2010 and 2014.

In the former Confederate States where voting rights were once vigilantly supervised by the U.S. Department of Justice in both Republican and Democratic administrations, it’s been open season for all sorts of abuses in recent years. One of them, voter-roll purges, has really gotten out of control, as the Washington Post’s Joe Davidson explains:

Consider this data from Myrna Pérez of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice: “Between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls. That’s almost 4 million more than between 2006 and 2008. And it should be obvious that that is a rate that outstrips the growth rate of total registered voters and the growth rate of total population.”

She acknowledged the responsibility of election administrators to keep voting rolls clear of the dead and geographically departed. But she said “what is especially concerning to the Brennan Center” is jurisdictions now excluded from “federal pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had purge rates that were significantly higher” than other jurisdictions, leaving 2 million fewer citizens eligible to vote.

The jurisdictions in question were the ones liberated from oversight by SCOTUS. Theoretically, the Justice Department itself can bring suits to police voting-rights violations under a different section of the VRA, but as you can imagine, it hasn’t happened at all in the Trump administration.

But even if the Feds were better disposed to voting rights, the flood of state voter-suppression activity would be hard to stop:

The 2016 presidential election was the first following the Shelby decision. Before that vote, “jurisdictions closed polling places on a massive scale,” said Leigh Chapman, voting rights program director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. A report by the organization, she said, “identified 868 polling places that were closed between 2012 and 2016.” She listed states, including Georgia, as areas where “polling place reductions have continued unabated.”

As you may recall, Georgia became a pioneer of these sorts of devious methods of voter suppression under the stewardship of two-term Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who continued his efforts to hold down minority voting right up through his very narrow win over voting-rights champion Stacey Abrams in the 2018 gubernatorial contest.

With the right to vote now the subject of partisan gamesmanship as practiced by those who belong to a party that knows demographic trends are not in its favor, more and more voices are calling for a fundamental solution to the problem:

To overcome the worst practices, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, advocates a constitutional amendment that explicitly guarantees the right to vote …

One is needed, he said during an interview, despite a “rag-tag sequence of anti-discrimination amendments” to expand voting rights beyond the propertied white men who originally lorded over everyone else. The amendments covered black people and women, allowed the people to elect senators instead of state legislatures, permitted District citizens to vote for president, abolished poll taxes and lowered the voting age to 18.

The Constitution as amended provides a way to fight discrimination of certain types, but doesn’t provide an individual right to vote.

The December 2000 Supreme Court decision allowing George W. Bush to become president emphasizes the need for a constitutional amendment in [Raskin’s] view because the ruling said “the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the president of the United States.”

Yes, constitutional amendments are very, very difficult to secure, and the very partisanship that is eroding the right to vote could easily thwart a voting-rights amendment in Congress or during the state ratification process. But while most Republicans are complicit in voter suppression to one degree or another, openly opposing the right of citizens to vote would be difficult for those who don’t subscribe to openly anti-democratic theories of self-government (cue up the “this is a republic, not a democracy” extremists who offer the final line of defense for voter suppression). An amendment drive could help shine a spotlight on current efforts to restrict voting rights, and perhaps push Republicans at least to consider statutory solutions like the restoration of key elements of the VRA (which had strong bipartisan support as recently as 2006 when George W. Bush signed an extension of the law).

Turning up the heat in today’s cold war over voting rights is essential before hostility to democracy becomes a permanent part of one major party’s fundamental principles.

Voter Purges Show Why We Need a Constitutional Right to Vote