Our Founding Fathers understood history. They saw that democracies are susceptible to demagogues, to majority rule becoming mob rule, to the subjugation of minorities, and to trampling on individual rights. And so they sought to curb the excesses of democracy through representation, separation of powers, checks and balances, and the protection of individual rights.
America, founded as a representative democracy, is also a constitutional democracy, and we did not have universal suffrage. Over time democratic ideas gained momentum and reforms were enacted that gave the people more “say” in their government. The 17th Amendment decreed that senators will be elected by the people, not state legislatures. This was followed by the 20th Amendment, giving women the vote, and then the Voting Rights Act. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 to protect against race discrimination in voting, and later amended it to protect against discrimination against language minorities as well. This momentous piece of legislation fulfills the promise of the 14th and 15th Amendments that every citizen is entitled to an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.
But that entitlement is under threat, particularly because two Supreme Court decisions removed provisions from the VRA that prevented voter suppression. Voting should be easy and as accessible as possible, and in many cases it is. But in recent years, more than 400 anti-voter bills have been introduced in 48 states. These bills erect unnecessary barriers for people to register to vote, vote by mail, or vote in person. The result is a severely compromised democracy that doesn’t reflect the will of the people. Our democracy works best when all eligible voters can participate and have their voices heard.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act responds to current conditions in voting by restoring the full protections of the original, bipartisan Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act was last reauthorized by Congress in 2006, but gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill does this by establishing a targeted process for reviewing voting changes in jurisdictions nationwide, focused on measures that have historically been used to discriminate against voters.
Other aspects of our election process also need reform to make voting equitable across all 50 states. The Freedom to Vote Act “levels the playing field” because it:
- Allows for same-day voter registration.
- Establishes automatic voter registration.
- Protects and expands access to voting by mail.
- Establishes 15 days of early voting, including at least two weekends.
- Restores voting rights to individuals who have been previously incarcerated.
- Prevents partisan gerrymandering.
- Protects against voter intimidation.
Together, these two pieces of legislation—the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act—would make great strides in ensuring equal and unimpeded access to the ballot box for all Americans. As the fight to enact these bills continues, make sure your voice is heard, loudly and often, by your elected representatives. Conservative arguments that America was founded not as a democracy, but a republic, is an anti-majoritarian argument that disregards the facts that our constitution is designed to foster a complex form of representative democracy.
—Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair
Sources: Atlantic, ACLU, Moyers, Brennan Center, the Washington Post