May 23, 2017

Private: Fighting for Voter Expansions, Not Just Fighting Against Voter Restrictions

2017 National Convention, Joshua A. Douglas

*This piece is part of the ACSblog Symposium: 2017 ACS National Convention. The symposium will consider topics featured at the three day convention, scheduled for June 8-10, 2017. Learn more about the Convention here

by Joshua A. Douglas, Robert G. Lawson & William H. Fortune Associate Professor of Law, University of Kentucky College of Law

Much of the discussion about voting rights during the upcoming ACS National Convention will likely revolve around how to fight back against new measures of voter suppression. And for good reason. The Trump administration has already signaled its desire to “fix” the so-called problem of “election integrity,” creating a sham commission to study the issue. We already know what the commission will find with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach leading it: embellished anecdotes of integrity concerns to justify ever-more restrictive voting rules.

But while we must fight back against measures that make it harder to register and vote, that cannot be the only aspect of our efforts. In fact, it should not even be the biggest part. If we use up our resources putting out each successive fire in the voting rights world, we will fail to move forward with more positive measures to make voting as easy and convenient as possible for everyone who wishes to participate.

 Several states and localities are coming up with innovative ways to expand the electorate and open up the election process. The movement to adopt automatic voter registration, which Oregon showed can help to improve turnout, is going strong. Online voter registration is now a reality in the majority of states; the lagging states should update their registration system.

Some states, like Virginia and Alabama, are easing their harsh felon disenfranchisement rules. Florida voters will have the opportunity next year to limit their own felon disenfranchisement law, which is currently among the worst in the nation in preventing over a million people from voting.

Other places are seeking even more innovative ways to improve turnout and democratic engagement. San Francisco passed a ballot initiative that will let legal non-citizens vote in school board elections. Two Maryland cities allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in all city elections. Berkeley just enfranchised 16- and 17-year-olds for school board elections. San Francisco came close to passing this same reform last year. New York legislators will consider a bill to lower the voting age to 17 for state elections. Proponents of these laws recognize that voting is habit-forming, and that youth – who are cognitively developed enough for voting – are a captive audience in schools where we can register them easily and inculcate a culture of democratic participation. More states and localities should join this movement.

Some local governments are also trying to remove entrenched politicians from rigging the electoral game in their favor, adopting independent redistricting commissions for city council and passing local campaign finance rules. These efforts can spread to other areas, collectively influencing policy nationwide.

The point is that there are various positive voter expansions happening in communities across the country. These reforms can serve as models, eventually trickling across to other localities and up to state policy. Once they are in place, they will become normalized and not seem that far-fetched. We can also make the case that opponents of voter enhancements are being fundamentally antidemocratic – which no one should support. We must dedicate sufficient resources to these positive expansions of the right to vote. Otherwise, we will be stuck on our heels playing defense. To truly move forward, voting rights advocates must champion and expand positive measures to enhance our democratic system.