Opinion

How to end voter suppression once and for all

It's time for a voting rights amendment

One of the many dark ironies of the 2016 election has been the endless parade of Republicans alleging a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election, while simultaneously using their control of state governments to prevent as many Democratic Party voters from being able to exercise the franchise as possible.

The Nation's Ari Berman has been doggedly covering the GOP's voter suppression tricks. The main strategy is throwing up obstacles to voting which will be harder for Democratic-leaning demographics, especially African-Americans, to overcome. A Fourth Circuit panel ruled a few months ago that North Carolina's voter ID law violated the Constitution because it targeted "African-Americans with almost surgical precision...the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the state's true motivation." More recently, Berman discovered an email from a Wisconsin Republican official refusing to put up an early voting station at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay because "students lean more towards the Democrats."

Democrats have been fighting back against these efforts, but it's high time they unified their efforts around an aggressive, universal solution: a voting rights amendment to the Constitution. Since it would take years to pass, this would be an excellent project for Barack Obama post-presidency — but regardless, every Democrat should be on board, from Hillary Clinton on down.

Such an amendment would be very simple. It would mandate that every single citizen over the age of 18 be allowed to vote, without exception. Any voter registration system which did not make it quick and easy to vote would be struck down; more importantly, no more felon disenfranchisement, not even for people currently imprisoned. The moral justification is also simple: Suffrage is a right so fundamental that it should not be possible to remove it — just as one cannot sell oneself into chattel slavery.

And from a quality-of-governance standpoint, this would place politics on a sounder moral and practical footing, for both parties. It's not impossible to imagine Democrats resorting to similar voter suppression schemes at some future date, which would be permanently foreclosed. For now and in the future, parties would contest elections by simply fighting for as many votes as possible, instead of trying to suppress the opponent's turnout. (Worries that politicians will legalize stealing or something to get the convict vote can, I think, be safely ignored.)

This could have a fairly large immediate impact on partisan politics. Some 6.1 million people have been disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. Naturally, black people are hugely over-represented in this population, with one out of 13 unable to vote. In some states, mostly in the South, the fraction is eye-popping. Over 21 percent of the black population of Florida cannot vote — and over 26 percent in Kentucky.

Most of these disproportionately black, brown, and poor people can be expected to vote for Democrats, if they do vote. That is no reason not to do it — on the contrary, spreading the franchise to as many people as possible is one place where partisan advantage corresponds neatly with high moral principle.

This is something Democrats sometimes struggle to see. One reason I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is that, despite his jaw-dropping obsession with fundraising, he's the rare Democrat who dimly grasps this idea. (Contrast him with Rahm Emanuel, who appears to think that political advantage lies in constantly betraying one's voters and stated principles.)

Case in point: McAuliffe's repeated efforts to re-enfranchise felons in Virginia. In April of this year, he announced he would restore voting rights to some 200,000 such people. This was quickly struck down by the Virginia Supreme Court, but McAuliffe still managed to restore the franchise to about 13,000 people.

Now, amending the Constitution is extremely tough. You've got to get a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, then approval from three-fourths of the state legislatures. With Republicans in control of Congress and most states, it's impossible to imagine this passing anytime soon.

Yet it's still an excellent issue on which to make a stand. Republicans will struggle to articulate a moral response to "one person, one vote" — mainly because there isn't one. Even if it doesn't succeed, it could be a convenient springboard to pass re-enfranchisement laws at the state level. Let's make it happen.

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