In state after state, conservative officials are waging a war on voting by enacting laws that serve no purpose other than to make it harder for people to participate in our democracy. These include everything from “voter ID” laws that disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of student, minority and low-income voters, to laws attacking early voting, to laws making it harder to register to vote, to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s (R) shockingly audacious plan to rig the Electoral College to prevent President Obama from winning in 2012.
This war on voting has not gone unchallenged — 196 House members, for example, wrote to state elections officials last week urging them to “put partisan considerations aside and serve as advocates for enfranchisement” — but merely fighting to block the most audacious vote suppressing effort since Jim Crow is not enough. If Americans who actually believe in democracy do nothing more than play defense, the inevitable trend will be towards greater and greater disenfranchisement.
Which is why two bills introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) last week are so important. The first, dubbed the “Voter Access Protection Act of 2011,” provides that “a State or local election official may not…require an individual to present a photo identification…as a condition of obtaining or casting a ballot in an election for Federal office,” thus restoring voting rights to the many thousands of people disenfranchised by voter ID laws. The second bill, the ‘‘Same Day Registration Act’’ does exactly what the name of the bill would suggest:
[E]ach State shall permit any eligible individual on the day of a Federal election and on any day when voting, including early voting, is permitted for a Federal election—
(A) to register to vote in such election at the polling place using a form that meets the requirements under section 9(b) of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993; and
(B) to cast a vote in such election.
It is unlikely that these bills will pass given the Congress’ current makeup, but Ellison still deserves a great deal of praise for introducing them. They send an important message that democracy cannot be defended simply by pushing back against laws that would thwart it — it must be aggressively expanded by laws that make it easier for American’s to participate in elections. Moreover, while these bills are likely to die in the federal legislature during the 112th Congress, there is no reason why states cannot follow Ellison’s lead by enacting same-day registration on their own and by passing state constitutional amendments protecting the right to vote.