By WI State Senator Lena Taylor, and Ohio State Senator Nina Turner
Last week’s announcement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that the Department of Justice will intervene in election lawsuits in Ohio and Wisconsin is welcome news to voters in our two states. The Department’s involvement not only brings additional legal expertise to bear and highlights the egregiousness of the laws being challenged, but signals a move by the Obama Administration to return our democracy to the transparent, open, and accessible system that has always allowed our nation to thrive.
The manipulation of the electorate is nothing new, but in recent years its scope has expanded dramatically. According to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, new voting restrictions will be in place in 22 states heading into the 2014 midterm elections. And these are no longer relegated to the states of the Old South. The same study points out that voting has been made harder across the country, including in Midwestern swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin.
These two cases illustrate the myriad ways in which voting opportunities are being restricted in the 21st century. In Wisconsin, a federal court recently struck down a newly-enacted state law requiring a state-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. Yet, despite a sound ruling by the judge, the state plans to appeal. In both states, early voting access is at issue once again. In Ohio, the Republican legislature with the backing of the secretary of state eliminated the state’s first week of early voting, the only period during which eligible Ohioans could register to vote and cast a ballot during the same trip. Moreover, both working Ohioans and Wisconsinites will not have the convenience of evening early vote hours this fall.
These changes don’t just make it harder to vote—they make it more difficult for citizens to cast a ballot and participate in their government. Studies in both states have shown that changes such as strict voter ID and cuts to early voting disproportionately affect low-income and voters of color.
In Wisconsin, nearly 300,000 registered voters lack the appropriate identification to comply with the law being challenged. Even if the state were to issue free photo IDs to those without, barriers such as poverty, geographic isolation, and busy work schedules would prevent many from obtaining this credential. Not to mention the rarity of voter impersonation at the polls in the first place.
Those most affected by early voting cutbacks face similar hurdles. In Ohio, early voters are statistically more likely to be African American and low-income—populations with a long history of systemic disadvantage. When hearings were held in Wisconsin on reducing voting hours, voters testified on how the changes would make it near impossible to cast a ballot, citing lack of transportation or childcare, multiple jobs, and lost wages.
The right to vote is an important guarantee by itself. But it is what those votes add up to that matters even more because they shape the governments under which we live. By making it harder for some of the most vulnerable voters to participate in the political process, we will inevitably be left with policies and policymakers that do not represent everybody’s interests. And instead of pursuing policies that foster economic opportunity—like investments in education to break cycles of generational poverty, workplace policies that strengthen our families and our economy, and ensuring employees get a good wage for a hard day’s work—the rungs on the ladder to economic success and security will continue to grow further and further apart.
President Lyndon B. Johnson said before signing the Voting Rights Act that “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” Instead of working towards the more perfect union promised in the Constitution, we are at risk of sliding backwards into battles that have been fought and won generations before.
Regardless of the involvement by the Department of Justice in our two states—and any other state—to defend the ability of citizens to have their say, it is time to stop these voting games to return the focus of our elections to what’s on the ballot, and not how and when those ballots are cast.
It’s only then that we will have achieved lasting progress, and made real strides towards the nation we all strive to build.
State Senator Nina Turner and State Senator Lena Taylor represent Ohio’s 25th District and Wisconsin’s 4th District, respectively.