Column: We need a new Voting Rights Act
Imagine an intersection with a long history of high-speed car crashes, injuries and fatalities. Authorities put up a traffic light and a speed camera – and the accidents and injuries plummet. A few years later, authorities declare “mission accomplished” and remove the light and speed camera. No surprise, the high-speed crashes and fatalities resume almost immediately.
This is the logic that animated Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to fillet the Voting Rights Act and that had conservative pundits, including George Will, praising the act as they simultaneously exulted in its demise. The predictable result took less than a day: Texas reinstated its racially tilted gerrymandered redistricting plan and moved to implement its highly restrictive voter ID law, under which voters can be required to travel as far as 250 miles to get identification. The real intent, voter suppression, is clear in the legislation’s provision that a concealed-weapon permit can be used to vote but a valid student photo ID cannot.
As Roberts undoubtedly knew, the chances are slim our highly polarized Congress can reach agreement on a new formula for the Voting Rights Act (even if lawmakers did, the Roberts court may not accept it). But the decision in Shelby County v. Holder should serve as a springboard to something more ambitious: a drive for a new Voting Rights Act that would go beyond the scope of the original to make voting more universal and accessible to all eligible Americans.
However lawmakers resolve the issue, a VRA 2.0 should also include:
∎ A separate federal ballot. Congress has the clear constitutional right to manage federal elections. A separate ballot for federal races strengthens that control. Other advantages include no more confusing butterfly ballots; there would be no more than three races (president, Senate and House) on a federal ballot. No more provisional ballots or access denied if someone shows up at the wrong polling place; the vote would still count only for those federal offices.
∎ A new voter registration regime. The United States is the only major democracy where the burden of registering to vote is on the citizen. The default should be that eligible citizens are presumed registered, with same-day voter registration available for those not registered via their draft registration or driver’s license. Ideally, Congress would provide the funds to modernize voter registration lists and create a 21st-century voting process in which voters could get personalized ballots printed, with all the offices they are eligible to vote on, at any polling place near them.
∎ Weekend Election Day. As WhyTuesday.org has pointed out, the law mandating federal elections on Tuesdays was crafted in 1845 to accommodate Market Day. “Election Day” should suit contemporary American life: a 24-hour period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, with early voting the week before. This would eliminate “rush-hour” backlogs early in the morning and at the end of the day, as well as Sabbath problems.
∎ A Social Security card as a valid voter ID. Any American citizen who can provide proof of a valid Social Security number should be able to obtain, free, a Social Security card with a photo. It should be mandated as acceptable for identification wherever a photo ID is required to vote. Such cards should be available not just at Social Security offices but also at post offices.
The time is ripe for a new Voting Rights Act that underscores voting as a sacred right for citizens and makes voting easy. If there is a silver lining in this, it’s that we can begin a drive to make that happen.
(Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.)