Kash Jain ’24
Despite significant legislative actions towards securing full voting rights and barring discrimination at the polling booth, the United States still struggles with unfair laws that limit the ability of all of its citizens to exercise their voices. While explicit racial discrimination isn’t permitted, states nationwide have adopted laws and redistricting maps that disproportionately impact voters of color, limiting their right to vote. Researchers and legal experts contend that measures from redistricting proposals to strict voter-ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.
During the 2020 redistricting cycle alone, lawsuits were filed in 18 states alleging that new legislative or congressional maps were racially discriminatory. As of early 2023, courts have held that maps in North Carolina and South Carolina discriminate against voters of color.
Part of the issue lies in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County V. Holder, in which the court struck down Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), limiting the Department of Justice’s ability to oversee state-level changes in voting laws. While the DOJ still has this ability through Section 5, no state is subject to it, as the formula for determining which states are covered was deemed outdated.
The ballot box is the first and most important step in our democracy, allowing citizens to have their voices heard and giving them control over the direction of public policy at all levels of government. Not only does voter discrimination limit a fundamental right, it reduces the input people can have on policies that impact their lives. When considering how to create broader socioeconomic equity, such a right is inherent to the conversation.
To ensure that our voting laws and redistricting maps treat all people fairly, Congress must revitalize and expand on the VRA by passing legislation that would: (1) require early voting for at least two weeks, (2) make Election Day a federal holiday, (3) create a new preclearance formula, and (4) require nonpartisan redistricting commissions.
As a Brennan Center study indicated, the presence of fewer polling places in Milwaukee depressed turnout among Black voters by 8.7% in the 2020 primary—this, coupled with the fact that voters of color report facing longer wait times at polling places, indicates that more limited places and opportunities to vote limits the ability of voters of color to express their voices. Extended voting times, including a federal holiday for Election Day, would address this by ensuring that all Americans have an equal chance to vote, addressing unnecessary and unequal restrictions on how and when people can vote by simply expanding the time in which people can vote.
Restrengthening the VRA would allow the DOJ to work to prevent states from adopting racially discriminatory maps. Adding the additional layer of nonpartisan commissions would make the redistricting process fairer and help eliminate deliberate attempts to disenfranchise voters of color.
However, the fight for voting rights faces significant political opposition. In recent years, concerns over voter fraud have grown significantly, leading to the push for a more narrow voting period. Proponents of limits on mail-in voting and extended early voting may view this proposal as undermining election security. Some officials, especially those at the local level, may be hesitant about extended voting due to the increased money and manpower necessary to staff polling stations for a longer period.
One could argue that states should retain total control over their redistricting processes and that DOJ oversight is federal overreach. Furthermore, they might argue that both DOJ control and independent commissions could instead serve as an avenue for one party to build maps that favor it.
This opposition, however, falls in the face of the simple fact that voting rights are and have been under attack, meaning that measures to secure them is paramount. Furthermore, concerns over voter fraud have been grossly exaggerated—any fraud that has occurred recently has been exceedingly rare and far too little to sway the outcome of any race. There simply isn’t enough of a reason to place stricter limits on voting, especially when voting rights are under attack. We must protect this fundamental right to grant all Americans an equal chance to have their voice heard.