Voting rights laws are moving dangerously backward

By: U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett

EXPANDED access to health care, new education programs for our youngest citizens, landmark protections at the ballot box: The wave of civil-rights laws that Congress passed 50 years ago broke down barriers for millions of people in our country to more fully participate in their communities and our democracy. These laws — Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and the Voting Rights Act, respectively — remain at the heart of our country’s commitment to opportunity today.

But some barriers still stand. In fact, some of the basic rights people fought so hard to secure are diminishing. Two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the core of the Voting Rights Act, Section 4. States and localities with a history of discrimination against minority voters no longer have to clear election changes, such as consolidated voting locations or voting registration options, with the U.S. Department of Justice. Because of Congress’ failure to fix this gaping hole in our country’s voting rights laws, partisan legislatures nationwide have passed restrictive voting laws that disenfranchise citizens and undermine our country’s democracy.

As of March, two-thirds of states had passed laws requiring some kind of identification from people at the polls. Requiring an ID may not seem like a problem at first glance, but these laws put up barriers for some potential voters. Not all people drive or fly internationally, and some cannot afford the cost of a state ID or take the time off work to get it.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office study last fall found that voter ID laws have a disproportionately negative impact on African Americans because in many places fewer African Americans have the kind of ID they need to vote. And a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute found that in the states with the most stringent voter ID laws, transgender people who have transitioned might not have identification that correctly recognizes their gender.

Another way states are disenfranchising voters is by limiting early voting. Since 2010, eight states have moved to shorten early voting periods. Providing people fewer opportunities to vote makes casting a ballot more difficult overall. But in some states, particularly in the South, minority voters are more likely to cast their ballots early, meaning they are disproportionately hurt by these laws.

The fact that so many groups of people — from minorities and transgender people to older Americans, students, low-income people and those with disabilities — face barriers to voting is fundamentally destructive to our democracy. Voting is a constitutional right that must not be abridged. We should be ashamed that voting-rights laws in our country are moving dangerously backward.

My goal is to make it easier for everyone to engage in our democracy and exercise the right to vote. As our country observes the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this month, it is past time for Congress to move forward with solutions that end disenfranchisement.

In Washington state, we have a voting system that other states would do well to adopt: We sign a sworn statement that we are who we say we are. I recently introduced a bill that would fight against suppression at polling places because of voter-ID laws by adopting a national system like Washington’s. The America Votes Act of 2015 would allow voters to sign a sworn written statement attesting to their identities if they do not have the ID required at their polling place.

Other bills before Congress that I am co-sponsoring would restore the heart of the Voting Rights Act. For example, the Voter Empowerment Act takes several steps to improve access to the ballot box, including early voting in every state. Nearly every Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives has signed on to support this bill.

Congress must seize the opportunity today to make sure that our country’s voting-rights legacy 50 years from now empowers all citizens with their constitutional right to vote.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, represents the 2nd Congressional District.