ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Our democracy requires a new Voting Rights Act

Voting is a right of citizenship and the opportunity to exercise it should be made easier, not more difficult.

This isn’t an abstraction. It is our call to Congress, whose failure to renew the Voting Rights Act opened the floodgate to problematic state voting laws and procedures, to restore teeth to the law.

In opposition to Jim Crow politics, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965, and for years lawmakers regularly renewed it with bipartisan support and with little debate or fanfare. States and local jurisdictions that had a history of voter discrimination were required to gain preclearance from the Department of Justice before they could impose changes in state voting law.

However, the U.S Supreme Court struck down the preclearance portion of the act in a case called Shelby v. Holder in 2013 on the grounds that the formula to determine discriminatory behavior was outdated. Writing as part of the court’s majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said “things have changed dramatically” and urged Congress to provide an enforcement mechanism that could pass court muster.

Without a doubt, it is possible to have secure elections without limiting voting options and access. But the line that keeps voting security from becoming voter suppression must not be crossed.

Congress could go a long way to fixing the problems here. Lawmakers must pass a new voting rights measure with meaningful provisions to deter state legislatures from making changes to voting procedures that could impede voting rights. As we’ve written before, several changes could protect voting rights, and address concerns about security and fraud without disenfranchising voters.

First, an overhaul of the Voting Rights Act should include a federal provision removing signature matching as a legal means of verifying voter identity. A signature is too subjective and there are much more reliable mechanisms for verifying identity.

Second, the federal government should fund a Postal Service program to provide ballot delivery for free via certified mail. A date-stamped receipt could be part of the process so voters know their ballot was received, and when.

Third, a national voter registry managed by the nonpartisan Federal Election Commission could be used as a safeguard. States would still maintain their own voter rolls and conduct their own elections, but would be required to share those records with the FEC to detect instances of double voting. Death records also should be made available to the FEC so that deceased voters can be removed from the rolls.

Fourth, the Congress should reconsider a return to preclearance or a streamlined remedy to review potentially discriminatory changes in election procedures before they take effect. In the Shelby decision, the Supreme Court did not rule out the possibility of preclearance as a provision to protect voting rights. The court only suggested that Congress should legislate a new formula or mechanism that more accurately reflects recent patterns of discrimination.

About 160 million Americans voted in the 2020 elections — a historic turnout and impressive expression of civic engagement during an election cycle complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, economic turmoil and political discord.

An improved Voting Rights Act must encourage participation and discourage states and local governments from erecting barriers that can be abused to disenfranchise voters or simply make it harder for people to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Voting is what we do to make sure all citizens have a role in determining the nation’s direction, are invested in our future, and are equipped to check the excesses of officials at local, state and federal levels. When we unnecessarily and capriciously block opportunities to vote, we turn back the clock to a time that we should never abide again.

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