THE BLOG
01/20/2012 05:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 21, 2012

2011 Changes to Voting Rights: Unnecessary Solutions to Non-Existent Problems

I am mindful that it is an important election year -- and as Vermont's Secretary of State, there is one item of particular distress to me -- the suppression of voter participation in the United States.

Yes, the very basis of our democracy is under siege -- under the guise of preventing voter fraud!

In 2011, legislation was introduced in 40 states to limit voter participation in the following ways:

  • mandating photo IDs in order to cast a ballot;
  • reducing early voting days -- in some cases from 45 days to 7;
  • repealing election day registration;
  • restricting student voting;
  • repealing voter-verified ballot paper trail for all voting machines;
  • restricting voter registration drives by placing obstructive burdens on filing.

Frankly, these changes threaten the very fabric of our democracy.

According to a report by Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law,

These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election.

These legislative changes also place disproportionate burdens upon other groups including the elderly, overseas, and military voters.

The Brennan Center has analyzed the changes made in 14 states and showed how more than five million eligible voters attempting to cast ballots in 2012 will find it difficult or impossible. Proponents of this wave of voting "reforms" are citing voter fraud as the rationale, but every study that has been done, even ones conducted by the advocates of reform, show no evidence to support this. In 2007, after a five year effort to review whether "voter fraud" was a problem, the US Department of Justice found virtually no evidence and further stated that the few cases brought forward were found to be mistakes made in filling out forms or understanding vote eligibility rules -- none of which would be deterred by voter ID legislation.

Although we, as a nation, have struggled with the issue of voting rights for a good part of our history, ensuring voter equality and increasing voter participation have always been a priority. In 1788, when the US Constitution was ratified, the electorate was limited to white male landowners. In 1870, the fifteenth amendment prohibited the use of a citizen's race, color or previous status as a slave as a qualification for voting. In 1920, the nineteenth amendment prohibited preventing any citizen from voting based on their sex. In 1961, the twenty-third amendment granted the District of Columbia three Electoral College votes. In 1964, the twenty-fourth amendment abolished the poll tax. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to bar literacy tests, ban overt racial discrimination, and require the Department of Justice to review and pre-approve any election law changes in states with histories of racial disenfranchisement. Finally, in 1971, the twenty-sixth amendment set the minimum voting age at 18. We have worked too hard to pass and enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to turn back the clock now.

These were important milestones for American democracy, propelling our country forward as a more inclusive, open society, where all eligible adult citizens could exercise their right to vote; culminating in the 2008 Presidential Election with more voters participating than ever before -- a turnout more racially and ethnically diverse than ever with a greater number of young and low-income voters casting ballots.

As a nation, we should be proud of a greater participation of eligible voters in our electoral process. Instead, we are seeing states attempt, and sometimes succeed, to reverse this trend. Democracy and access to voting should not be a partisan issue, but it appears to be heading in that direction. I urge my colleagues around the country to ensure the placing of undue burdens on our rights as US citizens is halted and reversed before our democracy is further eroded.

Denying eligible voters the ability to use their constitutionally protected right to participate is the real voter fraud.