There are times when I’m convinced the progress of this country can be measured through our ballot laws.
Think about it. Over the course of our history, we’ve expanded the franchise from the sole preserve of white male property owners to most all citizens 18 and older — regardless of race, gender, or wealth.
Yet despite this steady march, we remain embroiled in debate over who gets to vote. Mostly this is carried on in the states, with Republicans often favoring limits on access to the polls, and Democrats usually hoping to expand access.
The chief argument for moves to restrict access focuses on ballot integrity: protecting against fraud. We know that fraud happens: A voter showing up at the polls pretending to be someone else, or non-citizens trying to vote. But this is rare. After looking over 1800 files collected by President Trump’s now-defunct Voter Integrity Commission, Maine’s secretary of state wrote, “the Commission documents made available to me…do not contain evidence of widespread voter fraud. Indeed…the sections on evidence of voter fraud are glaringly empty.”
More pointedly, a few years ago Judge Richard Posner, a widely respected Republican appointee to a federal appeals court, raised eyebrows when he declared that he’d been wrong in 2007 when he’d voted to uphold an Indiana law strengthening voter ID requirements. That law, he wrote, is of a type “now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.”
Of course, you don’t need voter ID laws to make it harder to vote. You can cut the hours when the polls are open. You can reduce the number of voting places. You can cut funding for efforts to encourage voting or help voters get to the polls. You can make voting itself difficult — by limiting the number of booths, for example, so that long lines form. You can excessively purge the voter rolls. Creative minds have come up with all kinds of devices to make it more difficult to vote.
I don’t mean to dismiss the idea that we need to protect the integrity of the ballot and ensure that people who vote are entitled to do so. We do. But I believe representative democracy is strengthened by expanded voting through public marketing campaigns, registration drives and even automatic registration when you get a driver’s license, through longer hours, early voting or voting by mail.
Voting is our most basic right as a citizen. It’s how we make ourselves heard and felt. Our elected representatives respond to what voters consider the most important issues and how to decide them. Our whole political system depends on it, and erodes if voting turnout falls.
So the impact of voting is huge. The results that flow from voting in a representative democracy can determine the availability of guns, which health-care proposals move forward, the quality of governance you have, the economic policies that shape your life.
Ask yourself why it is that the federal government spends a lot more money on programs for older people than for young people. Is it because older people are simply more deserving of public spending? Of course not. The reason is that politicians know older people vote at far higher rates than younger people do. The laws reflect members of Congress’ sensitivity to that simple fact.
As a politician, I kept track of the reasons people gave me for not voting. Often it was just plain apathy, inconvenience, or a sense of powerlessness. Transportation could be bad. Older people were intimidated by the hoopla that surrounds the voting place, what with politicians out there shaking hands and people carrying signs. As a result, I understood their reasons for not voting, and could work to correct their legitimate concerns and make our democracy stronger.
We need to do everything we can to lift voter turnout, not suppress it. The more people who vote, the more nearly our democracy will reflect the views of “the people,” not just the people who had the wherewithal to have the right ID or a ride to the polling place. And the more the polls reflect the communities we live in, the healthier and more legitimate our democracy will be.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.