As I sit down to write this column, we are approximately four hours into “the most significant presidential election since 1860.” Whether or not you agree with this bit of hyperbole, I believe that one of the positive indirect effects of the interminable cacophony of offensive political speech has been to underscore the importance of actually exercising our right to vote. While the attention of the nation has been riveted primarily on the presidential race, decisions on the hundreds of down-ballot candidates and propositions will benefit from the increased attention of voters who make the effort to vote mostly because they want to have a voice in presidential elections.
In my honest opinion, voting is not only a right, but a duty, a sacred, secular duty that far too many citizens, for one reason or another, do not perform. I recently ran across a report on voter turnout prepared by the Pew Research Center. With a 53.6 percent turnout in the country’s most recent (2012) national leadership election, the United States ranks 13th among developed nations, just behind Poland (53.6 percent) and just ahead of Japan (52 percent). Belgium (87.2 percent) and Turkey (84.3 percent) were number one and two on the list, because voting is compulsory in these countries. But, turnout in Sweden (82.6 percent), South Korea (80.4 percent), Israel (76.1 percent) and France (71.2 percent) make the U.S. results look anemic.
What could possibly account for these disparities? Maybe the citizens of these countries are just more civic-minded and responsible people than we are. I think this is unlikely, and it certainly doesn’t square with the image that we Americans have of ourselves.
No, the sad truth is that the United States has a long history of voter suppression and that it continues to this day. The Founder’s vision, explicitly excluded women and slaves and left to the states the creation of other constraints on voting. That changed with the 14th Amendment in 1868, but did not eliminate voter suppression, which continued overtly for the black population, led by Democrats mostly in the South. This Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided the basis for change in the south, but change was slow. Following Richard Nixon’s successful “southern strategy” in 1968, the tools of voter suppression shifted to Republicans. Since 1980 leading Republicans at all levels of government have routinely, in moments of candor, acknowledged their use of a wide variety of techniques designed to suppress turnout of voters they expect to vote for Democrats. The party still operates under a 1982 consent decree based on explicit voter intimidation practices in New Jersey. More recently, Republican-led state legislatures and elected state elections officials have resorted to such creative tactics, as restrictive voter registration and voter ID requirements, eliminating polling places, restricting early and absentee voting, purging eligible voters from voting rolls and a host of more insidious efforts.
I do not think that the majority of Republicans, either politicians or voters, condone voter suppression, but the critical mass of Republicans who are prepared to use these tactics is sufficient to have a massive impact overall. The best evidence of this is Oregon. In 1998 citizens authorized the use of mail-in ballots for state elections. Today, Oregon leads the nation in voter turnout, which recently hit 71.6 percent, matching European levels of participation. If we make it easier for people to vote, they are ready and willing to do so.
In the upcoming legislative session, I will be submitting legislation to facilitate in-person absentee voting, which is the closest Virginia comes to early voting. Admittedly, this is a small step, which will not do much to improve turnout. Still, I am hopeful that this legislation – which should not be controversial – will succeed. Unfortunately, I fear that the majority in our Republican-led House of Delegates do not share my passion for increasing voter turnout in Virginia.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]