The Most Important Issue the Democratic Primary is Ignoring: Voting Rights


Much has been written about the long lines at the Arizona Democratic primary, with some voters waiting for as long as five hours to vote. Some Bernie Sanders supporters have cried foul and claimed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign must be responsible for the lines, which were meant to disenfranchise Sanders voters. Clinton’s campaign responded immediately, with Marc Elias, Campaign Counsel, posting on Reddit that the long lines were a result of the GOP-led voter disenfranchisement and gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which also hurt Clinton at the polls. In Maricopa County, Arizona, one district with a large minority population had no polling locations at all. Considering Clinton’s strength with minority voters, this particular instance of disenfranchisement would hurt her campaign more than Sanders.

It’s surprising that this is first time voter suppression has really come to the forefront of the discussion this election season. With so much focus on Citizens United and campaign finance reform, one would think that individual voting rights would be a major priority for both Democratic campaigns. Voter suppression has been plaguing our democracy for decades — long before Citizens United was decided and long before the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. Voter suppression helped elect President George W. Bush in 2000 and has reared its ugly head time and time again in our elections, with cutbacks to early voting and lines as long as 7 hours to vote.

The gutting of VRA is an American travesty, and one that will continue to have long-reaching consequences for our democracy. It should arguably be the most important issue of this election, more dire than breaking up the banks and getting the money out of politics combined. The freedom to vote is one that we citizens (who aren’t white, male and land-owning) fought long and hard for — it is our most important right outside of the Bill of Rights. Without fair and equal voting, we are a sham of a democracy. According to “Why Voting Matters,” a report by Demos:

“The Voting Rights Act—combined with subsequent legislation such as the National Voter Registration Act, which requires state agencies to provide opportunities for voter registration—has helped us make significant progress in boosting voting by Black Americans and other historically marginalized groups. At the same time, the overall voting rate fell to historic lows in this period, and, today, some American citizens are still without voting rights while many more face new restrictions or unnecessary challenges in exercising their right to vote. Millions of incarcerated persons, who are disproportionately people of color, cannot vote while serving their time, and millions more face limits on voting even when they are released. So too, enfranchised Americans’ freedom to vote continues to be restricted by policies and practices that circumvent or violate the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, which was itself severely curtailed in the Supreme Court’s alarming Shelby decision in 2013. In Southern states and elsewhere, eligible voters often face restrictive policies such as strict registration deadlines, photo identification requirements, and racially-motivated redistricting. Many of these same states are also antagonistic toward making it easier to vote, by limiting early voting and other easier-access alternatives to the traditional voting booth. Reflecting an ongoing legacy of institutional racism in our election systems, this new generation of election policies and rules are targeted at certain groups and disproportionately affect people of color, people who are poor, and young people.”

For her part, Hillary Clinton has always been dedicated to individual voting rights. Back in 1972, as a law school graduate, she worked with union leader Franklin Garcia to register Latino voters in Texas who couldn’t speak much English. In 2005, as New York Senator, Clinton introduced the Count Every Vote Act, which would have, among other measures, mandated early voting opportunities (to help reduce long lines at the polls), made Election Day a federal holiday, restored the voting rights of many Americans with criminal convictions, and outlawed the practice of deceiving voters with false polling times and locations. Last June, Clinton made a hallmark voting rights speech, where she called for automatic voter registration, a minimum of 20 days of early voting nationwide, and a push to repeal state laws that restrict people with criminal records from voting.

The Clinton campaign’s efforts to register voters and encourage early voting have been tireless. As early as last spring, Clinton volunteers were seen registering voters outside of Latino grocery stores and churches, and knocking on doors in Nevada. Her campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts and strength with early voters have also significantly boosted her primary results. Clinton’s allies have even started a $25 million political organization called Every Vote Counts, which plans to expand voter registration, protect votes, and improve turnout among minorities.

Bernie Sanders has also spoken out against voter suppression, and has introduced a bill to make Election Day a federal holiday. His campaign has been focused on bringing new voters into the mix, with a focus on the youth vote. He has long said that voter turnout is the foundation to his political revolution. Yet, curiously, individual voting rights are absent from his oft-repeated rhetoric about overturning Citizens United, campaign finance reform and bringing democracy back to the people. Further, his campaign’s strategic reliance on winning caucuses, which are far lower in turnout than primaries, and tend to take place in less diverse, whiter states, should raise eyebrows. As should his campaign’s reliance on winning whiter states to amass delegates, rather than reaching out to the diverse Democratic base.

If massive voter turnout is paramount to his political revolution, why is Sanders banking so heavily on low-turnout caucuses and mostly white states? And why did his campaign openly claim that it didn’t bother effectively to compete in southern states like Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, and Arkansas? Almost every one of those states has passed restrictive voting laws. Is Democratic turnout not important in those red states? Are they not invited to the revolution? Why would Sanders essentially skip the south, where 55% of the black people in the United States live, and where voter suppression laws are the biggest threat? Why would he not be expending the resources to register new voters and encourage early voting in the areas with the most restrictive voting laws, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign did?

According to the American Prospect, when it comes to voter suppression, “Race has been a significant factor. In 2008, voter participation among African Americans and certain other groups surged. Then came backlash. The more a state saw increases in minority and low-income voter turnout, the more likely it was to push laws cutting back on voting rights, according to the University of Massachusetts study. The Brennan Center for Justice likewise found that of the 11 states with the highest African American turnout in 2008, seven passed laws making it harder to vote. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth in the 2010 Census, nine have new restrictions in place. And of the 15 states that used to be monitored closely under the Voting Rights Act because of a history of racial discrimination in elections, nine passed new restrictions.”

It seems, then, that these southern, red states with high concentrations of minority voters whose votes are being suppressed every day, are the most in need of a political revolution: one where every eligible citizen gets a vote, and every vote counts.


Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the second Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission. 

3 thoughts on “The Most Important Issue the Democratic Primary is Ignoring: Voting Rights

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