By the time the 2018 midterms had wrapped up, everyone had won some and lost some. Republicans fell to the minority in the United States House of Representatives after predictably losing a handful of seats to Democratic insurgents. The Democratic Party also helped make history by electing a record number of women to Congress, including the first Muslim-American and Native American members ever.
Likewise, Republicans had plenty to celebrate. Not only did they retain control of the U.S Senate as expected, but they also strengthened their majority by flipping a few seats. In Alaska, Republicans claimed a sweeping victory up and down the ballot: the governor’s and U.S. House seat, as well as the State House and Senate, look to be completely under their control. In addition to that, Ballot Measure 1 was swiftly defeated.
Besides any individual office, there was one notable loser: the American voter. That’s because year after year, the wealthiest democracy in the world continues to make voting one of the hardest things to do.
In Georgia and North Dakota, state governments worked hard to deny thousands of citizens the vote. Georgia’s mass purge of voter rolls in the lead up to the election — carried out by the Secretary of State running in the 2018 governor’s race — undoubtedly affected the very close races for governor and U.S. Senate. So did the 53,000 voter registrations that were put on hold, most of which were predominantly black voters. As if that wasn’t enough, election day in Georgia was plagued by extremely long lines and technical errors that forced counties to extend voting times into the late hours of the night.
Other states saw similar accounts of voter suppression, including North Dakota’s recently approved voter ID rules that excluded thousands of Native Americans living on reservations from voting.
More broadly, states across the U.S. have added limitations on voting. Since 2011, seven states have limited voters’ ability to cast their ballot early. More states have arbitrarily purged voter rolls since parts of the Voting Rights Act were struck down in 2013.
On top of wide-scale voter suppression, voting is a convoluted and time-consuming process for many Americans. According to a United States Census Bureau survey of 19 million registered voters who didn’t vote in 2016, 14 percent of respondents cited busy schedules as a reason for not voting. Many employers don’t give time off for people to vote, forcing many who don’t have the luxury of taking unpaid time off work to miss out on elections that fall on weekdays.
Together, these barriers to voting act as an assault on the right of Americans to participate in their democracy. Notably, communities of color and the poor are uniquely disenfranchised by systemic and socioeconomic barriers, just as they always have been.
Luckily, there are policies that governments at every level can work to implement in order to rectify this injustice. State legislatures and the chambers of Congress should act on these policies immediately.
The first policy is simple: make Election Day a holiday. There’s no reason Americans should have the make the choice between losing out on paid hours and fulfilling their civic obligation. Why not just give everyone the day off so they can vote?
The second is to implement a national automatic voter registration (AVR) law. Instead of requiring that citizens opt-in to voting by actively registering, AVR would automatically use the information you use to sign up for a driver’s license to register you to vote. Some 15 states have already adopted this policy, including Alaska, which signs you up as soon as you apply for a PFD.
The third and final policy would require a more fundamental change in government. It’s clear that politicians and courts are unequipped to protect voters from mass disenfranchisement. Thus, to stop voter suppression, the government should create a series of independent federal oversight commissions to handle claims of unfair voting practices.
The commission would likely be appointed by a combination of state legislatures, governors and voters. The task of these commissions would be to handle claims from voters and organizations with evidence of voter disenfranchisement. That includes, but is not limited to, early voting cutbacks, voters being turned away at the polls and “faulty” election machines.
The commission would then have the power to interview election monitors and government officials and eventually determine whether the election was conducted fairly. Should a claim be verified by the commission, a host of powers would be granted at their disposal, including the ability to force counties to hold another election under revised conditions.
For too long, we’ve relied on the good-faith of politicians to uphold the integrity of elections. Blatant disenfranchisement in Georgia and North Dakota makes the clear case for systemic change — and soon.