THE BLOG
01/30/2015 12:00 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Time for a Truce on Voting

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For the last six years, Florida has been a battleground state. But not over what you immediately think. Florida has been a battleground for voting rights -- the center of a power struggle that has mirrored fights across the country. From expanding early voting hours to eliminating early voting days, and from mandating photo ID to nearly criminalizing voter registration drives, Floridians have seen the national drama over voting rights play out right here in the Sunshine State. And the same playbook has been used in state after state.

Manipulating the right to vote is as old as our country, and is not unique to Florida, North Carolina or the entire United States. The history of our country is the history of tortured progress from a highly restricted franchise to the expansive one we enjoy today. The powerful only begrudgingly opened the ballot box to the disenfranchised, and then only when made necessary by force, economics or changing demographics. America is "rare among developed countries in the level of politicization that occurs around voting rights," Sean McElwee recently wrote in Politico.

But if playing politics with the franchise is an unfortunate part of our past, it should be abhorrent to our modern democracy. At the start of a new presidential cycle, one without an incumbent, it is time to call a truce on voting.

America's path to a universal franchise started with white, property-owning men slowly relinquishing the right to white men who did not. This Jacksonian populist wave saw property qualifications for voting wiped out in the antebellum years. The final formal barriers to voting rights for all men fell with the end of the Civil War. This was short lived, however, as southern Democrats disenfranchised blacks and secured "white's only" political power for another 100 years. Meanwhile, the gender barrier was not crossed until the first quarter of the twentieth century, after decades of heroic struggle.

But our modern views on the right to vote were shaped by the Civil Rights Era. Perhaps it was the shear horror and injustice of Jim Crow, made transparent for the first time by television. Young men and women were beaten; some had dogs and the fire hoses turned on them; some died, all for the right to vote. We saw the injustice on our television sets every night. A nation recoiled. We had to ask ourselves: Do we want the right to vote to be a political tool in the hands of the powerful, when that power can be turned to such violence and injustice?

America answered, and the answer was no.

In 1965, with the votes of both Republicans and Democrats, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, finally bringing every American into the democratic process. The Voting Rights Act was America's great peace between the major parties -- renewed through the decades with bipartisan consensus -- that using the franchise as a weapon to suppress your opponents was beyond the pale. And in the path blazed by the VRA, a host of new laws expanded the right: the Motor Voter Act, the Help America Vote Act, and early voting by mail and in person. For 45 years America's politicians abided by the peace, that impediments to voting were unacceptable.

It looked like a permanent peace, but it was really just a temporary truce. Now, 45 years after the passage of the VRA, the truce that has been broken, and broken badly.

The last five years have seen an all-out assault on the right to vote in many states. At the state level, where most laws that actually impact voting are written, the harm has been the greatest. At least eight states with one-party control of government have enacted strict voter-ID laws that resulted in new restrictions to the right to vote of every young and minority voter. And in Florida -- where holding an election itself seems to be a Herculean task fraught with peril -- the state legislature is doing all it could to throw every road block it could think of in the way of voters, from new regulations for registering voters all the way to actually making more cumbersome the act of voting.

America has committed the most common sin. We have forgotten our past.

Long ago, we traded the ballot box for the gun, the sword and the guillotine. The right to vote is not a luxury to be expanded and contracted at the whim of the majority. But the problems surrounding restrictions and prohibitions surrounding voting and voter registration are frankly more acute than we feared. In Who Votes Now?, Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler reveal the a rising "income bias" in voting: the wealthy exert a disproportionate impact at the polls, while the poor are increasingly unlikely to cast a ballot. Ballot access and voter registration restrictions directly accelerate this disparity.

It is time for Republicans and Democrats to no longer view the right to vote as a contentious political battlefield. Voting is too sacred. Neither party should touch it. Neither party should try to rig the game. Both parties should focus on maximizing participation, easing access, eliminating fraud, and using technology to ensure that every eligible American casts a ballot.

Florida should be a battleground over which we fight to see who will be the next President of the United States; not over how long someone has to stand in line to vote. It is time for both parties to pass a new Voting Rights Act that addresses the concerns of the Supreme Court. It is time for both parties to take what was once a truce and make it a permanent peace.