This past May, the Connecticut legislature proudly stood up against a national trend to hamper voter participation by approving a bill that would allow eligible residents to register to vote on the same day the election is held. Upon its passage, Gov. Dannel Malloy — on whose behalf the legislation was introduced — said the same-day registration law “demonstrates Connecticut’s commitment to fair, accessible elections. . . . We’ve sent a clear signal to the rest of the country that Connecticut will not go in the direction of other states.”
Same-day registration “is a proven means of expanding the vote” according to Miles Rappaport, former Connecticut secretary of the state and now president of D??mos, a public policy and advocacy organization. D??mos cites estimates by elections experts that same day registration can increase overall voter turnout by 4 to nearly 9 percent, resulting in greater gains for demographic segments with historically-lower participation, such as young people, immigrants, and people of color.
The Voting Rights Act — landmark legislation outlawing discriminatory voting practices that had caused the disenfranchisement of millions — was signed into law in 1965. Nearly a half-century later, the franchise remains inaccessible to too many of our citizens, and some states are making things worse. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, since the beginning of 2011, 41 states have enacted nearly 200 bills restricting access to the ballot. States have introduced measures to end same-day registration, to restrict voter registration drives, to impose strict photo ID requirements, to shorten early voting periods, and to purge voters from the rolls through unreliable methods.
A Pew Center study reports that approximately 51 million eligible Americans — one in four — are not registered to vote. This number disproportionately includes low-income people, young people and minorities, leading to the conclusion that we should focus on increasing participation in elections and not on erecting bureaucratic barriers.
Supporters of the current move to limit voter participation argue that such measures will cut down on voter fraud and raise public confidence in the integrity of elections. Unfounded allegations that elections can be swayed by deceased voters often are used to justify voter suppression laws, with a wink and a knowing nod to Gov. Earl Long’s famous quote, “When I die — if I die — I want to be buried in Louisiana so that I can remain active in politics.”
In reality, a bigger problem than voter fraud is voter apathy. A Justice Department investigation of voter fraud between 2002 and 2007 did not identify a single case. “The Truth About Fraud,” an exhaustive study by the Brennan Center, found that in the relative handful of cases where individuals allegedly voted improperly, the “fraud” could be traced to clerical errors in registration (e.g., individuals with identical names who each voted once; reportedly-deceased voters who died after the election), which are not corrected by restricting voter participation.
In this heated election year there will be a battle over every vote; both parties are keenly aware of the impact that turnout by the young, the poor, and minority voters — the majority of whom likely will vote Democratic — will have on the outcome of the presidential race. Harvard Professor Alexander Keyssar, author of The Right to Vote: the Contested History of Democracy in the United States, writes that “the current wave of procedural restrictions on voting ought to be understood as the latest chapter in a not-always uplifting story: Americans of both parties have sometimes rejected democratic values for preferred partisan advantage over fair democratic processes.”
Early on in our country’s history, “paupers” were excluded from voting in a number of states. After Reconstruction, both major political parties actively sought to constrict voting rights. Democratic state legislatures in the South enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, and ultimately, whites-only primaries. In the North, mostly Republican legislatures singled out immigrants by adopting English-language literacy requirements. Otherwise-respectable Americans openly viewed universal suffrage as a “questionable blessing.”
Professor Keyssar notes that many of these laws were justified as measures to “preserve the purity of the ballot box,” just as proponents of today’s restrictive voter suppression laws profess. Tellingly, no law to constrict the electorate has ever been aimed at excluding upper-middle class or wealthy white male citizens. Whatever the justification, says Professor Keyssar, it cannot be denied that for more than two centuries the targets of exclusionary laws have, for the most part, been directed at the poor, at immigrants, and at African Americans — those who are perceived to be “other” than mainstream.
Recognizing and acknowledging these profound negative historical, social, and political impacts should move us to exercise skepticism over claims that voter discrimination is necessary to maintain our democracy. Connecticut is on the right track in safeguarding what President Lyndon Johnson called “the basic right, without which all others are meaningless.” •