Barack Obama’s second inaugural included what most would expect from a progressive President, including calls for action on climate change, inequality, and immigration reform. But near the peroration, the President also declared, “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” It was a significant nod to the many citizens stuck in endless lines on election night, and to activists who had to navigate labyrinthine regulations to register voters or make sure they could vote.
Obama’s remarks point to an unfortunate shift that’s taken place in recent years. While the immediate postwar period was defined by the expansion of rights, the new century has been marked by a worrisome retrenchment. In particular, we have seen the emergence of a states-based, conservative-led movement to raise the barriers to voting. Whether in the form of more stringent requirements for registering voters, curtailment of early voting, or unfounded allegations of voter fraud aimed at vulnerable constituencies, these measures all aim to do the same thing: limit and weaken the franchise.
How can it be that voting rights are now in retreat? For a country whose very founding was premised on liberty and rights, the withering of the franchise is nothing less than shameful. Demographic pressure on conservatives has encouraged them not to broaden their constituencies, but to attempt to dissuade and prevent other constituencies from exercising the most basic of democratic rights.
Because of these efforts, voting-rights advocates have been forced to mount legal challenges and campaign against voter-ID initiatives. Thankfully, most of these challenges were successful during the 2012 election cycle and prevented what could have been large-scale disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters. But beating back attempts at suppression only protects an inadequate status quo. Not enough has been done on offense, on making voting as easy and convenient as possible while maintaining clean and honest elections.
We at Democracy believe the time is ripe for an intervention—for a concerted campaign to renew our commitment to an inclusive and expansive democracy. Our symposium, with essays from some of the smartest thinkers in the voting-rights movement, aims to highlight the problem of the shrinking franchise and to propose a series of solutions. Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center gives the current lay of the land in voting rights and exhorts progressives to make democracy reform a key plank in our agenda. Next up are three essays on ways we can increase and strengthen the franchise. Heather Gerken, a professor of law at Yale, details how a system of automatic voter registration would work. Jonathan Soros and Mark Schmitt of the Roosevelt Institute argue for a movement focused on granting a constitutional right most Americans think they already have: the right to vote. Tova Andrea Wang, a scholar at Demos, writes on the various ways we can engage immigrant populations, including voting. And finally, Jeff Hauser of the AFL-CIO warns that, despite the legal and legislative failures of voter suppression in the 2012 election cycle, those efforts are already beginning anew.
This symposium was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.