The Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service (IPPS) hosted a panel discussion about voting rights in America on Oct. 5th titled “Battle for the Ballot: How Progressives are Fighting for Voting Rights.” The panel featured California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Ari Berman, reporter for The Nation and author of Give us the Ballot. Buffy Wicks, a Democratic campaign strategist and IPPS fellow, moderated.
The panelists discussed the history voting rights and contemporary barriers to voter registration. Berman began by referencing the impact of the movie “Selma,” and partially attributed this impact to general ignorance about the history of the battle for voting rights.
“If they don’t know the history of Bloody Sunday, or Selma, which was a huge, momentous event, then they certainly don’t know the history of what happened after, the fight voting rights in the five decades since, and that this struggle was never settled,” said Berman. “This has been a contested issue throughout American history, and it remains a contested issue to this day.”
Padilla began with his own background as a son of immigrants and described the inequity he saw growing up, particularly after proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative which aimed to make undocumented immigrants ineligible for health care, public education, and other state services. This lead him from engineering to grassroots politics.
“Take the rhetoric you hear from Republicans running for president right now, take the rhetoric coming out of Donald Trump’s coming out of mouth, and that was politics in California … And it didn’t take long to be upset by that,” said Padilla. “Echoing in the back of my head was what my mom and my dad brought me up with, ‘this is America, you can be whatever you want to be.’”
According to Berman, barriers to voting rights are not disappearing, and are slowing the effects of demographic changes in elections. Following the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, which turned out the most diverse electorate in U.S. history, there were expectations that the nation’s changing demographics would continue to translate into electorate and force both parties to adapt, but these were not met.
“What we didn’t see coming was that instead of encouraging those people to cast the ballot, there would be efforts to make it harder for them to vote,” said Berman.
These efforts include shutting down voter registration drives, and cutting early voting, and preventing ex-felons from passing a ballot, and requiring very strict forms of government issued ID, according to Berman.
New barriers to voting registration have risen since. In 2013, the Supreme Court scrapped a provision in the Voting Rights Act. This provision mandated federal review of any voting changes made in states with histories of voter discrimination.
“This is shaping up to be a major issue in the 2016 election, because we have a Supreme Court that has now weakened the Voting Rights Act, we have new voting restrictions in place in places like North Carolina and Wisconsin, some of which expressly target students, people of color, lower income voters, elderly voters, disabled voters,” said Berman.
[pullquote]If they don’t know the history of Bloody Sunday, or Selma, which was a huge, momentous event, then they certainly don’t know the history of what happened after, the fight voting rights in the five decades since, and that this struggle was never settled.
—Ari Berman, report for The Nation[/pullquote]
The panel discussed a various recent examples, such as the DMV closures in Alabama. Alabama closed 31 DMV offices, 80 percent of which were in counties with high proportions of black voters. According to an Oct. 6 Talking Points Memo article, Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell submitted a request for investigation into the closures to the Department of Justice on Oct. 5th, the same day this panel was held.
Padilla gave examples of policies designed to increase voter registration, such as automatic registration, a process where a state cross-references the data they have of people eligible to vote from driver’s licenses registrations with registered voters. This forms a list of eligible but unregistered voters who are then registered. According to Padilla, there are approximately 6.6 million eligible but unregistered individuals in California.
Both Padilla and Berman stressed the importance of registration as the first step to broadening the demographics of those who exercise their right to vote. “Why is voter registration in this country opt-in?” said Padilla. “We don’t have to opt-in to our other rights. I don’t have to opt-in for freedom of speech.”
Padilla and Berman also discussed justifications for making voter registration more difficult or blocking policies like automatic registration. According to Berman, the initial argument was that easier registration would increase voter fraud, particularly voter impersonation, but the data does not support this. “The data has shown that since 2000 there have been 31 credible cases of voter impersonation, out of a billion ballots cast,” he said. Although fraud is “virtually nonexistent,” according to Berman the follow-up argument is that policies like automatic registration would make fraud easier.
Berman said that the true rationale behind the conservative stance on voting policies is about slowing the effects of recent demographic changes in elections. “They’re saying, ‘ok, we realize that we can’t prevent everyone who disagrees with us from voting. Let’s just prevent enough of them. Let’s just try to shave two to three percent off,’” said Berman.
Padilla echoed this statement, saying in response, “That is sort of the new tactic and why I’m a big fan of saying that instead of playing defense, defense, defense, we’ve got to play offense when it comes to protecting and advancing our voter rights.”
Although much of the discussion had a partisan tone, Padilla emphasized that voting rights are not an inherently partisan issue. According to Padilla, in Colorado policies like same-day registration and early voting have brought up voter turnout by about 20 percent, “and all these things were done by Democrats, and there’ve been Republican gains in the last cycle or two,” said Padilla.
Ultimately, the panelists focused on the idea of having the right to vote. “We have freedom of speech … you have the right to not vote. But you have a lot of us who believe who want as many people as possible to vote,” said Padilla.
“We should think of it as, ‘If voting is a fundamental right, why aren’t we born with it?’” said Berman regarding the implementation of voting rights. “Why does it constantly restricted, and why do we treat it as something that’s optional, as opposed to fundamental?”