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The Bridge: Righting Voting Wrongs

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The midterm elections are here.

Voting has been the focus of the news cycle for weeks now. What’s been reported on has likely been hard to reckon with: Efforts to allegedly intimidate voters by poll watchers in Arizona and Pennsylvania, alarming voter fraud arrests in Florida, a national election worker shortage, and election deniers on the ballot. Truthfully, voting has become a difficult subject to talk about. Conversations about voting can so easily veer into the negative, inspiring feelings of frustration, anger, fear, and apathy. But voting is fundamental to our democracy, and now is as good a moment as any to remind ourselves that voting matters and is crucial to an accountable government.

In this edition:

  • The right to vote (or lack thereof)
  • Who benefits when we can’t ⁠— or don’t ⁠— vote
  • Hope in the Freedom to Vote Act
  • Make a voting plan

My thanks to Director of The Constitution Project at POGO Sarah Turbervilleand Senior Legal Analyst Katherine Hawkins, who provided invaluable insights to this edition.

Here’s a hopeful statistic to counter the stories I listed above: Voter turnout for the 2020 elections was actually the highest it’s been in over a century. The 2020 voter turnout came in at around 66%, which is admittedly still lower than other democracies. “If we had voter turnout in the 70th or 80th percentile, we would have a more fully realized, inclusive democracy,” Sarah said. “Corrupt officials count on the fact that a substantial amount of people won’t come to the polls for whatever reason.”

Voting wrongs

There are many systemic barriers that make voting difficult, inaccessible, and confusing.

Some are so much a part of the status quo, you may have never thought to question them. For example, why isn’t Election Day a national holiday? Why isn’t same-day voter registration ⁠— or better yet, automatic voter registration ⁠— implemented across the board? Then there are the more insidious anti-voting bills that essentially serve as a modern poll tax by implementing obstacles like strict voter ID requirements and the reduction of polling locations and early voting drop-off boxes.

“We have to ask, why is there an effort to make our democracy less inclusive. Who benefits from that?” Sarah said. “Shouldn’t we make it easier for people to vote instead of making it at all difficult?”

These systemic barriers and recent anti-voter bills have created an environment where our democracy isn’t effectively reflecting the say of the people. Disenfranchisement takes away the voices of eligible voters ⁠— disproportionally affecting voters of color , low-income voters, elderly voters, and voters with disabilities.

You’d think this sort of discrimination would be unconstitutional. But there’s something missing from the Constitution that enables these suppression tactics.

Did you know...

that the Constitution doesn’t contain a specific provision guaranteeing the right to vote?

Nowhere in our Constitution are we explicitly granted voting rights. This was a deliberate choice by the framers of the Constitution. Instead, over the last 233 years, we’ve made painstaking progress to guarantee that the opportunity to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race or sex.

But that wasn’t enough to plug the hole. The lack of an affirmative right to vote has proven to be enough leeway for state legislatures and the Supreme Court to chip away at our voting rights. It clears the way for arbitrary restrictions and voter suppression tactics. “If there was a fundamental right to vote, all this wouldn’t be possible,” Katherine said. Sarah agreed. She explained, “All of these barriers to voting would be inherently suspect because they’d threaten a constitutional right.”

TL;DR: There’s no constitutionally guaranteed right to vote (Video)

So what now?

Addressing a hole in the Constitution may seem like a heavy lift. But it’s been done before. There have been efforts to add an affirmative right to vote amendment to the Constitution, which POGO has supported in the past. There’s also a lot of promise in the Freedom to Vote Act, which would accomplish everything from expanding voter registration and access to making Election Day a federal holiday and improving election security.

Read Now: Why Voting Rights Are Crucial to an Accountable Government

Closing arguments

Voting is such a politicized subject in our country that it can be difficult to talk about. But the right to vote should be apolitical and nonpartisan — and vocalizing our frustration is far better than saying or feeling nothing. “Corruption feeds on voter apathy,” Sarah told me.

To wrap up, Katherine and Sarah answered a simple question: Why does voting matter?

Katherine said, “Voting is foundational to our system, and it is one of the only ways in which (in theory, at least) each of us counts equally and has an equal say in our government. It doesn’t always work out that way in practice ... but even in disenfranchised places and communities, there’s usually some state or local race that truly is one person, one vote.”

Midterms typically have lower voter turnout, but it’s in these races to elect state and local officials where our votes have even more weight. Some of these races may even serve to protect your voting rights.

Sarah said, “As citizens of a democracy, voting is not our only obligation, but it is the most important one.”

Thanks for reading. And thanks for voting!