Wheatley: Let Them Vote
By Louis Wheatley, Staff Columnist
Published on Friday, June 29, 2012
Although I’ve only been of voting age for two years of my life, I haven’t missed an election yet, either local or federal. I am probably in the upper echelons of motivated voters, so I had a moment of near panic when I realized my absentee ballot was going to be mailed to my Hinman Box while I was on the other side of the world in Buenos Aires. To make matters worse, the voter registration deadline was in two days. I might have given up hope, had I not been registered to vote in Oregon. If only others were as lucky as me.
Oregon makes an especially concerted effort to encourage voter participation. It was the first state to switch entirely to a postal voting system — that is, vote by mail. With the ballot delivered right to my door, I have plenty of time to read about the issues and mull over my ballot until I’m ready to mail it back in. It couldn’t be easier, and the state’s voter turnout proves that it works — 85.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2008.
Then I realized that it is possible to register to vote online in Oregon. I updated my mailing address online and, just like that, my ballot was internationally air mailed at no cost to me. I received my ballot a week before the election, but then stumbled across a new problem: The Argentinean postal service was a chaotic mess, as I discovered when a postcard took four weeks to reach my grandparents. I was worried that my ballot would never make it out of South America, but I shouldn’t have been surprised that Oregon was ready for anything. As an overseas voter, my ballot came with a secrecy waiver that allowed me to scan my ballot and email it in. And just in case I had any questions, there was a Skype name I could call to video chat with a staffer at my local county elections office.
Not all states are like Oregon, or even close. In the last five years, new Republican majorities in state legislatures across the country have enacted stringent electoral laws that toughen the rules for registration and voting. These efforts include presenting photo identification at the polling booth and cutting early voting periods. The main motivation behind these laws is ostensibly to combat voter fraud, which Republicans vilify as a massive civil plague. Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., recently attempted to mandate that signed voter registration forms be returned to the state within 48 hours of being filled. Furthermore, he is battling with the U.S. Department of Justice to purge Florida’s voter rolls of dead citizens and non-citizens in a high-risk fashion that threatens to remove legal voters from the list just before the November elections.
The Supreme Court affirmed in 2008 that a state has the right to ask for photo identification as a prerequisite to voting because the state’s obligation to prevent voter fraud outweighs a citizen’s burden in acquiring the identification. But the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that voter fraud did not exceed .001% in any state without such burdensome laws. Though the Supreme Court rightly affirms that the state has the responsibility to guarantee fair elections, the threat of widespread voter fraud is a myth. Moreover, these electoral laws disproportionately affect citizens who are low-income, elderly and disabled, many of whom also tend to support the Democratic Party.
Next year, the Supreme Court will review a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires the federal government to oversee election proceedings in states and counties, primarily in the South, that have historically disenfranchised certain groups of their voting rights. While these jurisdictions argue that the days of the Confederacy and institutional racism have passed, it appears that voter disenfranchisement survives throughout the country even today, albeit in a different form, and that these localities would be at a high risk to follow suit. Between the Citizens United decision and the gerrymandering of electoral districts, there is already enough to be concerned about when it comes to the state of our representative democracy. Even if we are only left with a vote as a symbol, a statement that some of us are still here and still care, let us keep that right to vote. We have made great strides in the past century to share the privilege of voting with disenfranchised members of our society. Now is not the time to step backwards.