Voting Rights Hysteria or Common Sense
Updated: Jul 27
"The vote is precious," said the late Congressman John Lewis. (Photo by the Los Angeles Times)
Voting is compulsory in the democracies of Belgium, Australia, Luxembourg, Uruguay and Brazil.
Belgium has the oldest existing such system. Compulsory voting was introduced in 1893 for men and in 1948 for women. Belgians, aged 18 and older, and registered non-Belgians must present themselves at their polling station. They are not required to cast a vote. However, those who fail to show up, without justification or having appointed a proxy, can face prosecution and a fine. If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. Non-voters also might have difficulty getting a job in the public sector.
In 6th-century B.C. Athens, citizens—adult males who were not slaves or foreign residents -- also suffered social opprobrium for not participating in the political system. Slaves would herd citizens into the assembly meeting place, especially for a quorum, with a red-stained rope. Those with red on their clothes would be fined by the state.
Athenian democracy held that it was every citizen’s duty to participate in decision-making. In the modern world, the underlying view is that compulsory voting is the responsibility of citizens, rather than a right, similar to taxation, jury duty and mandatory military service.
In the United States, voting is not compulsory. Voting “rights”, not voting duty, are a heated issue.
Recently, Texas Democrat legislators fled the state to break a quorum for a vote on a bill that, among other things, would clamp down on rules for voting by mail and rein in initiatives that widened access to voting in 2020. Their story is only one of many related to a struggle over voting rights and regulations.
Nationwide, Republicans are enacting laws creating voting barriers after former President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, according to the liberal National Public Radio (July 12). Trump and his allies have claimed falsely that the GOP-nominee did not lose the election.
This year, at least 18 of the 50 states adopted 30 such laws, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice (July 22). These laws, among other things, make mail and early voting more difficult, impose harsher voter identification requirements and make faulty voter purges more likely. More than 400 such bills have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions, reported the law and policy institute.
At the same time, Republican legislatures are strengthening control over how elections are run and how votes are counted, reported the progressive news magazine, Mother Jones (June 10).
“Twenty-four new laws have been passed in 14 states this year that will allow state legislatures to ‘politicize, criminalize, and interfere in election administration’, according to a report released by three nonpartisan voting rights groups: States United Democracy Center, Law Forward and Protect Democracy. Overall, 216 bills have been introduced in 41 states to achieve these ends.”
President Joe Biden warned that American democracy is facing its greatest threat since the Civil War, according to BBC News (July 13).
“There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote and fair and free elections,” said Biden.
The Brennan Center for Justice (May 28) wrote:
“The United States is on track to far exceed its most recent period of significant voter suppression – 2011. . . The restrictive laws from 2011 were enacted after the 2010 elections brought a significant shift in political control over statehouses – and as the country confronted backlash to the election of its first Black president. Today’s attacks on the vote come from similar sources: the racist voter fraud allegations behind the Big Lie (of widespread voting fraud in the 2020 election) and a desire to prevent future elections from achieving the historic turnout seen in 2020.”
The Pew Research Center (January 28) found that Americans voted in record numbers in last year’s presidential election, casting nearly 158.4 million ballots.
“That works out to more than six in ten people of voting age and nearly two-thirds of estimated eligible voters . . . Based on these measures, turnout was the highest since at least 1980, the earliest year in our analysis, and possibly longer.”
Hans von Spakovsky, of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote that mandatory voting registration, when eligible citizens provide information to government agencies, threatens electoral integrity (March 27, 2013):
“Automatically registering individuals to vote without their permission would also violate their basic right to choose whether they wish to participate in the U.S. political process. Indeed, this new scheme threatens one of America’s most cherished liberties: the freedom to be left alone by the government.”
“The freedom to be left alone by government”: civic responsibility plays no role in U.S. society for von Spakovsky.
The Heritage Foundation has promoted false claims of voter fraud. Von Spakovsky, who heads the Election Reform Initiative, played an influential role in alarming Republican Party members without any evidence of widespread fraud.
ProPublica, winner of five Pulitzer prizes, is a nonprofit online newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Founded by the Sandler Foundation in 2007, it also has received funding from the Knight and the MacArthur foundations among other organizations. According to ProPublica (September 15, 2020):
“At the Heritage Foundation, von Spakovsky maintains a database of voter fraud cases and, emails show, regularly urges secretaries of state to contribute to it. At the moment, the database encompasses some 1,300 cases, stretching over a period that begins in 1982. As (the international news agency) Reuters recently noted, billions of ballots were cast during that time.
“Von Spakovsky’s writings on fraud carry the veneer of academic research. But when he was questioned about his work in a trial two years ago, he testified that none of it had undergone the stringent vetting process of peer review. The judge, in that case, dismissed his testimony, saying it was ‘premised on several misleading and unsupported examples’ and included ‘false assertions’.”
The Brennan Center for Justice (May 28) says that two federal bills would expand voting.
“The For the People Act . . . would curb voter suppression and make it easier for all Americans to register to vote and cast a ballot. It would outlaw partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. And it would overhaul our campaign finance laws to amplify the voices of ordinary Americans, combat corruption, and make federal campaign spending more transparent. Together with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the full protections of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 hobbled by the Supreme Court, the For the People Act would move us measurably closer to realizing the promise of democracy for all.”
The For the People Act has passed in the House of Representatives and is stalled now in the Senate. The procedural vote to introduce the legislation needed 60 votes to open floor debate but received only 50, according to National Public Radio (June 22). In the evenly divided chamber, all Senate Democrats backed it, but all Senate Republicans voted no.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, believes in the false assertion of election fraud.
In an opinion piece for The Daily Signal (March 3), an online publication of The Heritage Foundation, founded in 2014, Pence wrote that the Democratic proposal would “increase opportunities for election fraud, trample the First Amendment, further erode confidence in our elections and forever dilute the votes of legally qualified eligible voters.
Pence cites unconstitutionality of the voting proposals:
“Congressional Democrats have chosen . . . to push forward a brazen attempt to nationalize elections in blatant disregard of the U.S. Constitution,” he wrote.
The Brennan Center for Justice (May 13) counters this idea:
“Critics have alleged that the For the People Act would result in a ‘federal takeover’ of elections. This is false.
“Under the For the People Act, state and local governments would continue to administer all elections, just as they do now, and they would continue to set policies for their jurisdictions beyond what is required by federal law. The For the People Act merely sets baseline standards for voting access in federal contests, as Congress has done many times before.”
California Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa claimed in a publicized email that the For the People Act “would force states to restore the voting rights of convicted felons – including violent felons convicted of murder or rape.”
PolitiFact responded to LaMalfa’s claim (March 4) It is published by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a non-profit journalism school and research organization:
“The For the People Act (H.R.1 and S. 1) doesn’t expressly mention murderers or rapists. But LaMalfa’s statement is at least partially correct as the bill states that citizens convicted of a crime shall still be allowed to vote ‘unless such individual is serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility at the time of the election. The congressman omitted that last part about needing to be out of prison.’”
In his The Daily Signal commentary, Pence did not make that mistake. He wrote:
“Felons would be able to vote the moment they set foot out of prison.”
Due to felony disenfranchisement, 5.2 million Americans, or 2.2 percent of the voting age population, could not vote in the 2020 election, reported The Sentencing Project (October 30).
According to PoliFact:
“LaMalfa’s statement also ignores the fact that many states already restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies at the end of their sentence.
“In 18 states, including California, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated and receive automatic restoration upon release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 19 more, felons lose their voting rights while incarcerated but regain them after completing parole or probation. In Maine and Vermont, people who are incarcerated never lose the right to vote.”
Conservative journalist, George F. Will, called the Democratic proposal “a constitutional desecration.”
“The Constitution is extremely clear that the primary responsibility for conducting elections rests with the state legislatures, and there is no particularly compelling reason to change that,” said Will on Amanpour & Co (June 22).
“There is a lot of sympathetic hysteria on the left about the voting bills passed around the country as voter suppression bills. A great many of the measures . . . are simply going back to the status quo ante. That is status quo before the extra measures taken into the liberalized voting procedures because of the pandemic. . .
“I think people are more alarmed by the voting bills than there are people reading the voting bills.”
Walter Isaacson, the interviewer, said:
“You once wrote that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was one of the noblest and best things Congress had ever done. Wasn’t that also determining how elections should be run in states?”
“Sure, it was. And it was to address an egregious century-long post-Civil War violation of the spirit of the 14th Amendment (extending citizenship to those born in the country or naturalized and equal protection for all citizens, including former slaves), and I believe in the letter of the 14th Amendment. That is a very different situation than we are in today, which although advocates of H.R. 1 and S. 1, the two bills in question here, say this is the resurrection of Jim Crow. That is, as I say, people go from 0 to 60 hysteria in about 10 minutes in today’s political discourse.”
Isaacson followed up:
“But do you think there’s been hysteria on the Republican side as well trying to pass new restrictive laws in state legislatures?”
“Well, first of all, the use of the word ‘restrictive’ is bothersome. People say, for example, to require a voter ID procedure is restrictive. . . . I think that is just a loose way of talking.
“But yes, my lord, there’s Niagara nonsense on the Republican side about voter fraud (for) which there is vanishingly small evidence. In part because just think about this as an economist would. The effort that has to go into organizing voter fraud on a large scale is disproportionate to any probable electoral outcome. It is just absurd in theory and non-existent in practice. So, yes, there is hysteria all around. But . . ., what else is new?”
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the United States. These laws were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Southern Democrat-dominated state legislatures to disenfranchise Black people and strip their political and economic gains during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, which ended in 1865.
Jim Crow laws were enforced until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Before then, African Americans risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally.
There were impossible literacy tests, poll taxes, property ownership requirements, grandfather clauses, and massacres, such as the Opelousas Massacre (Louisiana) in September 1868 and the Colfax Massacre (Louisiana) in April 1873.
Perhaps, as Will says, many have not read the voting bills and are alarmed by their idea of them. However, the post-Reconstruction history of African Americans has been one of rights given and taken away over and over again. It is not sympathetic hysteria to recognize and support attempts at voting expansion and suppression. It is common sense.
Democracy needs people to participate in it. Why shouldn’t legal immigrants, for example, vote in local elections, which affect issues such as schools? They do so in Portugal, Sweden and many other countries.
The more citizens involved in democracy, the more invested they become and the result is a more representative government. Voting is a duty.
“The vote is precious, It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it,” said John Lewis, the late civil rights activist and member of the U.S. House of Representatives.