Congress can mark National Voter Registration Day by protecting the right to vote for all

Voter registration. It should be easy, simple, and straightforward – but for too many Americans, the simple act of registering to vote is difficult, complicated and time-consuming. It’s the very reason Congress must pass legislation that strengthens the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On National Voter Registration Day, it is imperative that Congress combat attempts by states to prevent and discourage communities of color from participating in our electoral process.

Today, few realize the “herculean efforts” states historically took to prevent black and brown people from registering to vote. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) banning race-based voter discrimination because long-standing and widespread voter suppression tactics – measures like poll taxes and literacy tests – were used by states to keep black people off the voting rolls. 

In addition to banning race-based voter discrimination, the Voting Rights Act provided mechanisms for monitoring the worst offenders of state-sponsored voter suppression. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder case in 2013 gutted those provisions. Since then, 23 states have passed stricter laws aimed at making it harder to register or cast a ballot. In the aftermath of Shelby, restrictive measures intentionally designed to discourage voters of color from registering are blooming.

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Florida is an example of a state that has created an environment of confusion and fear when it comes to voter registration. While Florida historically expanded voting rights in 2018 with the passage of Amendment 4 - a constitutional amendment clearing the way for 1.4 million returning citizens to register to vote - it hasn’t been an easy path for these would-be voters. Not only must they pay fines, fees and restitution to vote, the registration process is confusing and complicated. Given the fact that Florida has no central agency or database in which people can confirm the status of their financial obligations, fear around registering to vote is well warranted. Current state law re-criminalizes Floridians who mistakenly register if they have outstanding financial obligations. Registering to vote could cost a resident a $5,000 fine and/or up-to five years in prison.

The attack on registration also extends to organizations attempting to register people of color. Earlier this month, a federal judge rightfully blocked a Tennessee law that would fine groups conducting voter registration drives up to $10,000 for submitting incomplete or inaccurate forms. The law’s execution would have had a chilling effect on the work of Tennessee non-profits who frequently conduct voter registration drives ahead of major elections. It is no coincidence to learn that a study earlier this year showed that non-profits engaging new voters were more likely to engage voters of color and young people, the very people current Tennessee lawmakers deem less likely to vote for them.

These intentionally erected structural barriers to voting require strong structural and legislative solutions at the federal and state level. The Senate must pass the For the People Act, which will give eligible voters across the country access to automatic, online, and same-day voter registration. It will also allow 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register of vote ahead of their 18th birthday. Passed by the House as H.R. 1, the Act would also make Election Day a national holiday and limit the process of purging voters from voter rolls. States have a role to play too, and should pass pro-democracy reforms such as automatic voter registration.

Proponents of restrictive laws argue that criminalizing voter registration is necessary to prevent voter fraud. But research shows that voter fraud is a myth. The Trump administration’s election commission found no evidence of widespread voter fraud. What we know is that the enduring myth of voter fraud has led to voter suppression that disproportionately targets black and brown voters. It also prevents these communities from building the political power they deserve and have historically been deprived of. Research shows that systemic barriers that make it harder to register and cast a ballot decrease the likelihood of voter participation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Civil rights groups like Advancement Project National Office will continue organizing and advocating to make voter registration easier. On National Voter Registration Day, the Senate must pass the For the People Act.

Judith Browne Dianis is the Executive Director of Advancement Project National Office, a next-generation, multi-racial civil rights organization rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice.