The right to vote is one of the most frequently cited constitutional right in the Constitution itself; appearing five separate times total, including four individual amendments enacted to protect it. Since African-American men were granted the right to vote in 1870, and the passage of women's suffrage in 1920, many states have used arbitrary methods to deter certain blocks of voters from the polls. Poll taxes, literacy tests and complicated voter registration were commonplace up until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that abolished these practices. A Supreme Court decision in 2013 invalidated a key component of the Voting Rights Act, giving nine Southern states the power to change their election laws without federal approval. Today, the impetuous transgressions against the right to vote from which the Voting Rights Act was enacted to protect Americans are being undermined by voter ID laws that are in currently being enforced in 32 states, 17 of those requiring photo identification. It is no coincidence that the year many voter restriction laws were put into place, 2014, voter turnout for the elections that year were the lowest in any election cycle since World War II.
The most common cited excuse for passing voter ID laws is to prevent voter fraud. But "There has been very little voter fraud in America, very little," said Rep. John LewisJohn LewisDemocratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Obama, Dave Chappelle nominated in same Grammy category MORE (D-Ga.) in a recent interview. Lewis was one of 600 protesters who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965 to protest voting discrimination. Their efforts led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They endured countless assaults, constant harassment, and were subjected to arrest several times during the peaceful, nonviolent protests they conducted to secure voting rights for African-Americans. "Out of millions and millions of votes cast over the years, and all of the studies, all of the research points out there has been almost no voter fraud," Lewis continued. Of the 2,068 cased of alleged election fraud since 2000, researchers at Arizona State University found that only 0.5 percent of those accusations were based on voter impersonation. The majority of allegations were due to absentee ballot fraud or registration fraud, which voter ID laws would not prevent.
The state of Alabama has been criticized for passing some of the most restrictive voting laws. The state passed a law, which first went into effect in 2014, requiring government-issued photo identification to vote. The state subsequently closed 31 driver's license offices, leaving 28 counties in Alabama without a place to get one; nearly half of those are counties in Alabama's Black Belt, a region predominantly home to poor African-Americans. This year, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency also increased the fee to renew a driver's license by 50 percent. Fourteen other states have passed similar voter ID laws. Studies on the effects on voter turnout found that restrictive voting laws decrease voter turnout among registered voters by 2 percent. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight estimated that the effect of voter ID laws would result in net swings ranging from 0.4 percent to 1.2 percent to Republican candidates in seven states that enacted voter ID laws from 2008 to 2012. Most people have a government-issued photo ID, and use it on a regular basis, but according to several different studies, 5 to 11 percent of Americans do not have a photo ID, and a disproportionate amount of those without photo IDs are minorities and low-income individuals.
The right to vote is a fundamental one and the foundation of our democracy. "We need to do a better job in urging people, especially our seniors and young people, to vote early and vote during those periods of early voting," added Lewis. "You have to say to people and I say it all the time, never say 'my vote doesn't count' or 'will not count.' When you bring voters together, the votes get added, and they have an impact. Members of Congress, the state legislatures, city councils — they can count and they know where the votes are coming from. People learn to count. When African-Americans began registering to vote in the South, the majority of candidates started campaigning for their votes."
Legislators should be facilitating voter procedures, not adding more obstacles to the process. California recently approved legislation that would automatically register people to vote through the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. Earlier this year, Oregon adopted similar legislation that automatically registers all eligible voters unless they choose to opt out. Across the country, laws that expand voting rights are beginning to outpace those that restrict them, but these laws cannot be effective if eligible voters don't participate in the process.
The responsibility of exercising one's right to vote falls on today's youth more than any other demographic, but unfortunately, young people are one of the least likely demographics to turn out to vote. In the 2010 election, only 21 percent of people ages 18 to 24 voted. Lewis emphasized the importance of youth rallying each other to go out and vote: "I think young people have a great deal of influence over their peers. Voting is the right thing to do and if you're going to do it, go in and vote together in the communities where [young people are] attending school or do it on breaks while they're home from school. ... They have to make the vote the issue. If they're concerned about student loans and the high costs of education, then they have to vote." Lewis adds that young people should look back to, and learn from, the young activists from the civil rights era, and "read the literature and watch the videos of the early days of the civil rights movement to see how those involved kept their eyes to stay focused on the prize. See what another generation of young people — not just college people, but high school kids, also — did in a peaceful, orderly, nonviolent fashion to bring about a nonviolent revolution."
Sainato is a freelance writer.