Posted by Guest on November 07, 2017 in Blog

by Sarah Seniuk

November 7th, 2017 is what’s known as an off-off year when it comes to elections, meaning that there are no federal contests on the docket, and only two states (Virginia and New Jersey) voting in gubernatorial races. And while, as WAMU reported, the timing of the Virginia elections happened coincidentally, this off-off year schedule has often been linked to much lower voter turnout.

Voter turnout is a small part of the diversely complex story surrounding elections and accessing the right to vote. AAI hosted a congressional briefing this election day with Nicole Austin-Hillery of the Brennan Center for Justice, Jeanette Senecal of the League of Women Voters, Jennifer Bellamy of the ACLU, and Danielle Lang with the Campaign Legal Center.

Austin-Hillery began with the reminder that voting rights matter every year, not merely when there are major federal elections happening, especially in the wake of the Shelby County v Holder ruling of the Supreme Court in 2013. The Shelby County case effectively gutted sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of voter suppression to get federal approval before changing any of their voting right laws. The removal of these protections, according to Austin-Hillery, has seen a resurgence of voter suppression laws, ranging from voter identification laws to proof of citizenship requirements.

Senecal noted that now many of the aforementioned organizations are having to divert resources away from more active campaigns promoting registration and further extending the vote to disenfranchised groups, to defense of those whose rights are now being taken away or severely restricted. It is lawyers who are doing that work now, instead of the federal government, but they are winning their cases and trying to set new precedents. Senecal emphasized how voter registration is key for turnout, highlighting programs like automatic voter registration, day-of and online registration, and even pre-registration for those who are not yet old enough to vote.

Voter registration is key to vote turnout, said Lang, but also of crucial importance both in terms of turnout and representation is partisan gerrymandering. “We have this idea that voters choose our representatives, and when they don’t represent us, well we can boot them out of office. But this has created [a] system where voters don’t choose their representatives, instead representatives choose them. And voters know that.” To improve turnout then, we must address registration, suppression, and the redrawing of district lines to ensure that districts actually reflect community members. While addressing gerrymandering successfully seems a daunting task, as each individual state decides how to draw district maps, there is hope to be found as last month the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Gill v Whitford  - which investigates the extensive partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin.

Bellamy outlined concrete strategies for how we as individual citizens can help ensure voting rights for ourselves and others, and it begins with showing up to vote if able because our representatives have a tendency to be more responsive to those constituents who are active voters. “This is about making sure that people are receiving the dignity they deserve in our community.” Because laws only matter if we have leaders who are willing to implement and protect those laws. Bellamy noted that nearly 100 years after the passing of the 15th amendment which gave African Americans the right to vote, only 2.1% were registered and able to exercise their constitutional right - the discrepancy is what led President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1964. She called on Congress to update the Voting Rights Act to address the Shelby Supreme Court ruling, discontinue funding to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, and support more active legislation to ensure voting rights like the Democracy Restoration Act.

A question was raised about what kind of “big ideas” or big strategies are in place to address access to truly representative voting as a whole. Austin-Hillery argued for the Voter Empowerment Act an omnibus bill which addresses many of the aforementioned issues by modernizing our voting procedures to ensure accessibility, and to protect and empower voters. But also, to bring back one of the oldest “big ideas” is to reinstitute civic education in schools to ensure that young people value the right to vote and understand their roles in crafting a healthy democracy.

To find out more about what you can do, talk to your representatives about the aforementioned Acts, follow our Advocacy Road Map, and get involved with our #YallaVote campaign in your community. The full panel discussion can be found on our Facebook page.

Sarah Seniuk is a 2017 fall intern at the Arab American Institute.