Last week, thousands of participants marched from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to protest the wave of voter-id laws sweeping the country. Generally, conservatives argue that these laws protect the integrity of the ballot, while liberals argue that these requirements disenfranchise voters (although liberals seem ok with supporting these laws in RI and KS, where it is politically advantageous). Our focus however, should be broader. Voter ID laws are just one facet of a larger ballot access problem in America.
This problem begins with voter registration laws, our country’s greatest source of disenfranchisement. A 2001 task force chaired by Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford determined that our registration laws are some of the world’s most demanding and lead to low voter turnout. The United States is one of the few industrialized democratic nations where the entire onus of voter registration falls on the individual.
Arguments that these laws “protect the integrity of the ballot” are usually made by those ignorant to the racist, xenophobic, sexist, and classist history of voter registration in the United States.
We have made progress in the fight for universal ballot access with the Voter Rights Act of 1965, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act, but our system is still rife with barriers for citizens. Registration can be difficult for a number of reasons: forms can be rejected without notice on a technicality, voters may not restart the registration process upon moving, or voters may live in one of the 41 states without same-day registration.
Although decreasing barriers does not guarantee increased turnout, implementing some type of voter roll system would substantially increase the number of potential voters. If our politicians were forced to work under the assumption that everyone in their district, not just the extremes, was a potential voter, it could open the door to more highly contested campaigns and incentive politicians to adopt more centrist platforms.
We often cite redistricting practices and voter ID laws as some of the barriers to fair elections and the drivers of the current gridlock in our system. Because voter registration is such an ingrained process in our society, it is often overlooked when debating solutions to gridlock. Given the rise of independent voters , opening the voter flood gates to all citizens could have a significant effect on our elections and is worthy of a debate.