The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, May 17, 2016 3:20 pm

Ongoing vote for change

Brian Francisco Washington editor

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not stop election authorities and others from trying to prevent certain people from voting.

The U.S. Department of Justice repeatedly invoked the statute, and courts upheld it, to fight discriminatory practices. Along the way, federal legislators expanded and strengthened the law.

In 2004, the NAACP and People for the American Way released a report, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow," that described numerous instances of black voter intimidation and harassment across the nation in the four decades since the Voting Rights Act had taken effect.

Voting rights advocates say their fight is far from over. They contend the democratic process has been impeded by state laws enacted in the past decade that require voter identification and restrict voting hours.

Expanding voting access "will be a never-ending enterprise," said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan voting rights advocacy group. "We’re going to never reach perfection and never have to change anything again. We’re constantly changing as a society. Some of the mechanisms change."

For instance, he said, voters in Oregon, Washington and Colorado cast ballots by mail. What would happen to their elections should the debt-ridden Postal Service shut down?

FairVote has 22 policy recommendations for improving voting. Among them: automatic voter registration, having election days observed as state and national holidays, extending voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds, restoring voting rights to convicted felons and implementing "ranked choice voting," in which primary elections are "all-partisan" with the four candidates attracting the most votes for an office advancing to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

It all sounds pretty ambitious.

"I think the only thing we have going for us, and it’s somewhat perverse, is that things are pretty bad out there," Richie said.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law has a voting "reform agenda." It calls for universal electronic and portable voter registration, a minimum early voting period and federal minimum standards for voting machine and polling place allocation.

Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said that until the Supreme Court makes a clear, broad ruling on lower courts’ acceptance or denial of state voting laws, "I think politicians in a number of states are trying to test their luck and pass laws which would make it harder for eligible Americans to access the ballot box."

Does the voting rights movement need another Selma, Alabama, site of the 1965 marches that helped prompt Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act? Or another disputed presidential election, such as the 2000 contest that hinged on Florida’s recount of votes?

"I don’t know if it’s going to be like a seminal, single event," Richie said. "I don’t think we need to have a Florida-type election or a Selma march on the bridge. I think that we’ll be having this conversation, and we’ll be seeing progress."

But he said that if the 2016 presidential election were to come down to a single state, and there were battles over voter eligibility and access to polling sites in that state, it could "jump-start" more-inclusive voting laws.

Richie is more hopeful that consensus can be reached in ongoing disputes, such as whether independent voters should be able to participate in partisan primary elections and whether voter IDs should be easily accessible to all qualified voters.

"I guess I’m an optimist," Richie said, "in that I think when things look particularly dark, sometimes that’s actually when there’s chances for change."

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