Voting Rights are Human Rights
by Ted Miller
first published in Tumbleweird April 2021
If every citizen is truly equal under the law, every citizen should have an equal right to vote. If we truly value equal rights for every citizen, every citizen should have an equal opportunity to exercise those rights.
But there are those in power who work to disenfranchise those who threaten their hold on that power. They believe the votes of their supporters are more important, and they use aggressive tactics to suppress the votes of those who may vote against them. To paraphrase Orwell, they seem to believe that all voters are equal, but some voters are more equal than others.
I began writing this month’s column on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day state troopers brutally attacked peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The protesters were beginning a march to the capital to demand their right to vote. It took three attempts and the protection of federal officers for the marchers to reach Montgomery. The repeated violent attempt to keep Black citizens from their right to vote led directly to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.
Since then, attempts to undermine the VRA haven’t stopped. A key part of the VRA was a requirement for “preclearance” of changes to voting laws, a federal review to prevent disenfranchisement through voting restrictions. In 2013, supreme court decision Shelby County v. Holder gutted the VRA, specifically the provision for preclearance. In her dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
As if to prove her point, Republican majority states immediately enacted a range of voting restrictions that eroded the protections of the VRA.
One thing the 2020 election and its aftermath showed is just how fragile our democracy is. Blatant disenfranchisement of voters before the election, relentless attempts to overturn the results, and perpetuating the Big Lie that the election had been stolen culminated in the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol. The insurrection may not have prevented the certification of the Electoral College votes, but the attack on our democracy hasn’t stopped.
Hundreds of bills have been introduced in state legislatures to make it harder to vote. These bills would shorten early voting periods, close polling places earlier and on Sundays (specifically targeting traditional Black church “souls to the polls”), severely limit absentee and mail voting, add more restrictive voter ID requirements, and even make it illegal to provide food and water to voters standing in line. Really? What possible reason could there be for prohibiting a volunteer from providing a bottle of water to a voter standing in line for hours (because other voting options have been eliminated) other than to discourage them from casting their vote?
News reports about these voter suppression initiatives indicate that Republicans acknowledge there is no actual evidence of voter fraud or irregularities, just that the public lacks ‘confidence’ in the election results. Study after study has shown that widespread voter fraud is nonexistent. But who are the ones crying about unfair elections? Who are the ones claiming fraud?
"This isn't about voter suppression; it's about voter integrity," is the new standard for disingenuous statements.
Two bills currently in Congress will help restore voting rights. HR1, the For the People Act, will establish federal requirements for automatic voter registration, provide limits on district gerrymandering, expand mail voting, and limit voter ID and ballot collection restrictions. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will restore and improve on the portions of the VRA that were gutted in Shelby.
Although unlikely to pass in the Senate without a change to the filibuster, these two bills would do more to ensure equal voting rights than any legislation since President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act almost fifty years ago.
The cumulative effect of voter suppression keeps a minority party in power even when a majority of the electorate disagrees with their policies. Voting rights are at the heart of ensuring every citizen is indeed treated equally under the law. None of the work for social justice—the fight to dismantle systemic racism, to end poverty, to combat climate change, to provide health care for all, to protect workers, to ensure the government works for the people—none of that progress is possible without the power of the people to vote.
Those who want to limit your right to vote know they cannot maintain their power on a level playing field. Don’t believe the gaslighting about voter fraud. Don’t believe the rhetoric that divides us, claiming that voting rights advocates want to destroy America when they are actually working to ensure a democracy where all votes are equal. Non-existent voter fraud isn’t the threat to our democracy; the threat is the full-scale attack on our voting rights.
If we truly believe in a democratic government of the people, voting should be accessible and simple for everyone. In Washington State, we have demonstrated that elections can be simple, convenient, and secure. Every citizen of the United States should be guaranteed the right to vote without burdensome and unnecessary restrictions.
The human right of self-determination begins and ends at the ballot box.
Voting rights are human rights.
For more information about voting rights, see: https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-february-2021