Unusually for a Western democracy, the United States allows subfederal bodies—the fifty states—to regulate most aspects of elections. Over the last decade, many states have used (in fact, abused) this authority to make it more difficult for eligible citizens to vote. States have imposed photo ID requirements for voting. They have slashed the periods in which people may vote early. They have hindered (in some cases, virtually prohibited) efforts to register people. They have erroneously purged people from the voter rolls. And so on.
It’s no mystery why all this voter suppression has taken place. To be blunt, Republican politicians have realized that certain facially neutral restrictions disproportionately prevent Democrats from voting. They have therefore enacted these restrictions for the sake of partisan advantage—to make the electorate more Republican than the eligible citizenry. Why do some neutral policies have a disparate partisan impact? Because they make voting more burdensome, and it’s Democratic-leaning constituencies like racial minorities and the poor who have more trouble jumping through the extra hoops. And how do we know the motivation for the voter suppression is partisan? The giveaway is who has passed the restrictions. Almost all of them have been ratified by states under unified Republican control. States run by Democrats have tended to make voting easier in recent years.
To date, most of the resistance to voter suppression has taken the form of litigation. Plaintiffs have argued that restrictive policies unjustifiably abridge the right to vote, or violate the Voting Rights Act because of their disparate racial effects, or breach various state law provisions. But now that Democrats have taken the House, it’s time to start thinking about stopping voter suppression through legislation—via laws instead of lawsuits. Of course, such bills will be neither passed by the Republican Senate nor signed by President Trump. Still, they can send a powerful message that a majority of the House now wants to expand, not contract, political participation. Failed bills may also soon become enacted legislation, in the event that Democrats win unified control of the federal government in 2020.
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