We need a new Voting Rights Act

Posted Saturday, Jul. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Imagine an intersection with a long history of high-speed car crashes, injuries and fatalities. Authorities put up a traffic light and a speed camera — and the accidents and injuries plummet.

A few years later, authorities declare “mission accomplished” and remove the light and speed camera. No surprise, the high-speed crashes and fatalities resume almost immediately.

This is the logic that animated Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision to fillet the Voting Rights Act and that had conservative pundits, including George F. Will, praising the act as they simultaneously exulted in its demise.

The predictable result took less than a day: Texas reinstated its racially tilted, gerrymandered redistricting plan and moved to implement its highly restrictive voter ID law, under which voters can be required to travel as far as 250 miles to get identification.

North Carolina has moved to follow with its own restrictive voter ID law.

With expensive, slow and complex lawsuits the only real recourse for voter discrimination and voter suppression actions, the floodgates are open to an array of legal efforts designed to suppress or diminish the votes of minorities, students and others.

As Roberts undoubtedly knew, the chances are slim that our highly polarized Congress can reach agreement on a new formula for the Voting Rights Act.

But the decision in Shelby County v. Holder should serve as a springboard to something more ambitious: a drive for a new Voting Rights Act that would go beyond the scope of the original to make voting more universal and accessible to all eligible Americans.

Section 4 of the act, which the court struck down, set out a formula by which certain states and jurisdictions are designated to need federal permission for any changes to their voting procedures.

If Congress cannot agree on a formula to decide which states and localities to include for this preclearance, election reform expert Heather Gerken has suggested another option: Allow civil rights groups and the minority voters they represent, anywhere in the nation, to “opt in” to the Voting Rights Act by filing an administrative complaint with the Justice Department when their voting rights are constrained.

However lawmakers resolve the issue of preclearance, a VRA 2.0 should also include:

• A separate federal ballot. Congress has the clear constitutional right to manage federal elections. A separate ballot for federal races strengthens that control.

• A new voter registration regime. The United States is the only major democracy where the burden of registering to vote is on the citizen. The default should be that eligible citizens are presumed registered, with same-day voter registration available for those not registered via their draft registration or driver’s license.

• Weekend Election Day. As WhyTuesday.org has pointed out, the law mandating federal elections on Tuesdays was crafted in 1845 to accommodate Market Day. “Election Day” should suit contemporary American life: a 24-hour period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, with early voting the week before.

• A Social Security card as a valid voter ID. Any American citizen who can provide proof of a valid Social Security number should be able to obtain, free, a Social Security card with a photo. It should be mandated as acceptable for identification wherever a photo ID is required to vote.

Such cards should be available not just at Social Security offices but also at post offices.

The time is ripe for a new Voting Rights Act that underscores voting as a sacred right for citizens and makes voting easy. If there is a silver lining in the cloud created by Roberts’ decision, it is that we can begin a sustained drive to make that happen.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. nornstein@aei.org

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