A Universal Right to Vote


This editorial originally appeared in the New York Times.

Last month’s Supreme Court arguments over the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act served as a reminder of the long history of racial voting suppression in this country. Many of the states covered by Section 5 of the act, particularly in the South, spent decades trying every method they could think of to keep blacks and other minorities from the polls, or to reduce their voting strength.

But areas that aren’t covered by the act have no reason to feel smug. Many lawmakers in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have also pursued ways to keep selected voters from the polls, using methods like ID requirements or restrictions on early voting. Though the intent is often partisan — Republican officials repressing Democratic votes — the effect is usually the same as it was during the struggles of the 1960s, having a disparate impact on blacks and other minorities, but now adding on students, the poor and the elderly.

These more recent battles over ballot access show how important it is to build new legislative protections for participation in democracy. Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires areas with a history of discrimination to pre-clear any electoral changes with the Justice Department, remains a significant tool to prevent abuses in areas spread across 15 states, and it should be upheld by the court. But no matter what happens to the act, it’s imperative that Congress take action to prevent these kinds of abuses across the rest of the country.

The recent announcement by President Obama that he is creating a bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration represents an opportunity to begin this work. The group’s purpose is to prevent long voting lines, which in many cases were deliberately created by officials who cut back on early voting or reduced polling places in urban areas. Blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long to vote as whites did last year.

But long lines are just a symptom of the problem, and the commission’s goals are too narrow to make a dent in the larger issue. (Of course, that hasn’t stopped Republicans from trashing the effort before it’s even begun; Representative Candice Miller of Michigan, who leads the House committee in charge of voting laws, opposes the commission and federal intervention into voting issues.)

What’s really needed is a new act that makes access to the polls a universal American right. The Voting Rights Act remains necessary to prevent continuing racial discrimination, but bringing lawsuits under Section 2 of the act (which applies to the entire country and is not being challenged) is enormously difficult and costly. Preliminary injunctions to stop discriminatory election practices outside covered areas are rarely granted.

Racial prejudice was the principal target of the 1965 act, but the partisans who control so many state election systems have often gone beyond race in their attempts to rig voting to their advantage. Voter ID laws that impose a burden on students, the elderly or the poor, for example, should become as presumptively illegal as racial burdens are now. So should registration systems that make it harder for immigrants or non-English speakers to get on the rolls, or districts gerrymandered for political gain.

A country that takes pride in its democratic system should provide all voters with basic voting standards. Though Ms. Miller and other Republicans seem to think that federal mandates “would disrupt our already well-run system of elections” in the states, millions of voters have experienced something very different. Solving that problem is as urgent now as it was 50 years ago.