THE BLOG
11/19/2014 02:42 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Promote the Vote, Protect the Vote

Blend Images - Hill Street Studios via Getty Images

In the 2000 presidential election, scenes of long lines, reports of malfunctioning voting equipment, and complaints that those turned away had no recourse together spurred a bipartisan coalition to pass the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Voting rights advocates, members of Congress, and the president came together in response to improve the administration of national elections in the United States. We desperately need to resurrect that spirit today, in the wake of the 2014 election and the many new state laws that have made voting so much harder. While pundits and partisans debate the impact of such laws on the election results, what should be of concern to all of us is the impact they have on voters -- those who cannot vote, others who suffer undue burdens trying to vote, and many who give up voting altogether.

In recent years we have seen barriers to the voting booth erected across the country. The rise of voter ID laws, with their often selective criteria for an acceptable ID -- yes to a hunting license, no to a student ID card -- threaten to add a rather large asterisk next to the common summation of our democracy: "one man (or woman), one vote." Other restrictive measures, such as cuts to early and absentee voting and shortened registration hours, seem designed not to help America vote, but to make sure voting is as hard to do as the opposition dares make it.

These new laws are justified by supporters as necessary to thwart fraudulent voting, a concern that seems to have escalated only since greater numbers of minority voters cast a ballot in the 2008 election. Although records show virtually no election fraud, some states would use this phantom to deprive tens of thousands of individuals from casting a ballot -- all while the non-white electorate continues to grow. In fact, the proportion of the electorate that is not white and middle class is getting larger. By 2050 the proportion of voters who are African-American and Latino, now 20 percent of eligible voters, will more than double to 45 percent. And it seems that voting restrictions may go the same way.

It is in this context that the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder is most unsettling. The court ruled that a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was outdated, despite voluminous testimony before Congress when it was extended in 2006 - for another 25 years -- with near unanimous support and signed into law by President George W. Bush. Nevertheless, the court said that the Justice Department needed different grounds to extend oversight of changes to election law in states that had historically suppressed the black vote.

The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2013 introduced in response to Shelby v. Holder seeks to resurrect voter protections in several ways, some that echo the original law and some that are new. But even if the Voting Rights Amendment Act became law, it would not undo many of the successful attempts to institute so-called voter fraud protection measures, such as photo-ID requirements and an end to same day voter registration. These restrictions on voters were not all enacted by states with a history of discrimination. Further, the harm to women in particular done by photo ID requirements won't be undone by changing the Voting Rights Act.

The facts about those lacking photo ID are often startling to middle class Americans whose lives are documented in a paper trail of great detail. But studies show that 12 percent of Americans -- more than 25 million people -- lack the required form of government-issued photo ID. Those people are most likely elderly, students, women, people with disabilities, those with low income, and people of color.

Women can be hard hit by such requirements. One in every five women 65 and over lacks a driver's license. Since women live longer, they are disproportionately among those lacking a birth certificate needed to get a photo ID -- they may never have had one or it may be lost. Getting a birth certificate from a rural jurisdiction is often difficult and can be costly. Women most often change their names to get married and again to get divorced -- the fate of one of every two marriages -- and so lack an ID with their current name. The young and the poor who do have licenses are far more are likely to have one that does not show their current address.

In 2008, the Supreme Court decided in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board with a minimal record before it, that getting a photo ID was not so onerous as to be unconstitutional. Developments since then have proved them wrong, and the question is back on its way to the court. This time, the court must take into account the realities of photo ID for millions of Americans whose lives don't fit the middle-class template.

The right to vote per se isn't in the Constitution, oddly enough. And there is an argument to be made that it should be, but in the meantime, as the 2014 elections demonstrated once again, much remains to be done even without making the right to vote a constitutional guarantee. Members of Congress, along with the president, have had a lot to say about working together in a bipartisan fashion after the election. The preservation of voting rights has a fine tradition of such bipartisan support. It is time to revive it.