The word coming out of the nation's capital is that President Obama will focus part of his upcoming State of Union address on income inequality and economic opportunity for those not included in the top 1 percent. This is, of course, good news for the struggling middle class and the working poor. However, because it is an election year, most people understand that by and large all that will really come out of Washington is the usual partisan bickering and failure to move forward on major pieces of legislation.
It was a bit of a bright spot that just before the Martin L. King, Jr. holiday the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan bill titled the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. The bill is aimed at fixing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suffered as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In Shelby, the Court struck down section 4 of the VRA thereby leaving the VRA's section 5 preclearance mechanisms empty.
While the bill has bipartisan support, it will nevertheless be a struggle to get it through the Congress. As the mid-term elections approach, the House of Representatives, controlled by the Republicans, will be completely focused on trying to maintain that control. Therefore, the nations' voters will have to engage in some well-designed and coordinated activism to move the bill forward. Protecting the rights of voters and ensuring the right of every eligible voter to vote should be a continued priority for our democracy.
It was in this light, that we saw a second bright spot during the past week when the Presidential Commission on Election Administration released its report. Who can forget the long lines and hassles that many voters had to endure while trying to exercise it constitutional franchise as citizens. Casting your vote and accessing your voting poll in any election should be easy. It should not take all day and voters should not have to climb hurdles and other obstacles to register to vote and locate their proper voting locations.
In this regard the Presidential Commission made several findings and recommendations to improve "the American voter's experience and promote confidence in the administration of U.S. elections." Among those recommendations were calls for expansion of online voter registration; expansion of the period for voting before the traditional Election Day; better management of polling sites and continued improvement in voting technology. This is why many cheered last term's Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. The Court ruled that Arizona's evidence of citizenship requirement could not be used to prevent or declare invalid registrations through the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 registration forms. The Court ruled that the form required the voter to certify under penalty of perjury that he or she is, in fact, a citizen. It did not require further documented proof to validate the registration. The state is free, of course, to prosecute any voter who falsely asserts citizenship.
Voting and protecting voter enfranchisement are essential to a democracy. In America, we need to continue in every way to provide unfettered the right of our citizens to participate and vote in every election and particularly in our national elections. Most voting surveys demonstrate that during the off presidential election years, mid-term elections, the actual percentage of voting age turnout hovers just under 40 percent. This is significant and the argument can be made that this level of turnout is what contributes to the partisan divide that has plagued our democracy for decades. It also makes it easier to construct barriers to the voting franchise. These are among the motivations for some, like Ohio State Representative and chair of Ohio's Legislative Black Caucus Alicia Reece (D) to call for a state constitutional amendment -- a Voters' Bill of Rights -- which would preserve a 35 day early voting period, prescribe extended hours for early voting, develop online voter registration and allow a voter to cast a provisional ballot anywhere in the correct county.
It also suggests that as a nation, we not only have to better administer our elections, but open the electoral process to greater participation. This includes the call by some for non-partisan primaries. We can have well run elections, but if the process excludes a great percentage of eligible voters who cannot vote in closed primaries and therefore cannot have a voice in the candidates that appear on the general election ballot, it dampens the voters' desire to vote in mid-term elections. Jackie Salit, author of Independents Rising and president of Independentvoting.org has argued that in order for a democracy to thrive, the opportunity for the American people to speak must be present. The people speak through their right to vote. Salit asks: Do you believe our democracy is for everyone? She believes the answer to that question should be an unequivocal yes. Clearly, if democracy means anything it must mean that every voter has the right to meaningful participation in the voting process. If we hope to have a government that is not bogged down in partisan bickering, and looks to the well-being of the nation, then perhaps the choice of general election candidates should not be solely a partisan activity.
Michael A. Hardy, Esq. is General Counsel and Executive Vice-President to National Action Network (NAN). He has been involved in many of this nation's highest profiled cases involving violations of civil or human rights. He continues to supervise National Action Network's crisis unit and hosts a monthly free legal clinic at NAN New York City's House of Justice.