Regulating Votes and Stifling Democracy

Frightening similarities in U.S. and U.K. voting restrictions

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Screen Shot 2017-03-02 at 4.03.37 PMBack in the 1980s, our current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, called the Voting Rights Act a “piece of intrusive legislation.” The British Conservatives argue that regulating elections more tightly enhances democracy. Under a guise of promoting free and fair elections, actions like these are restricting  voting and stifling democracy.

This is a worrying narrative, part of a dangerous history in both of my two countries — I’m a citizen of both, on exchange at UC Santa Cruz from Edinburgh.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to eliminate racial discrimination in elections. But in 2013, the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder overturned the section of the act that forced states with a history of racial discrimination to have any changes to voting legislation approved by the U.S. attorney general or a federal court. By the 2016 presidential election, 14 states had new voter identification laws, meaning 32 states in total now have some sort of voter ID law, according to The New York Times.

In the U.K., parties are gearing up for a snap general election coming up on June 8. In their recently released manifesto, the Conservatives pledged to introduce laws that require formal identification — like passports or driving licenses — to vote. This mimics the discriminatory trend in voter ID laws in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

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These laws disproportionately hurt underrepresented and vulnerable sects of populations, like the houseless and the elderly. The Electoral Commission in the U.K. has predicted that an estimated 3.5 million voters — 7.5 percent of the electorate — would be prevented from voting under this new law due to having no suitable identification. Northern Ireland introduced a voter ID law, but after realizing this would affect lower income voters, voter ID cards were issued to all eligible voters. The U.K. Conservatives have no equivalent plan.

These calls, which reek of elitism, are preventive measures to be taken to “tackle every aspect of electoral fraud,” according to the Conservative Party manifesto, to ensure secure British elections. But ultimately, voter fraud isn’t a salient problem in the U.K. The attention should primarily be focused on ensuring that people can vote and then on preventing fraud, not the other way around. According to The Guardian, out of 51.4 million votes in the 2015 U.K. election, there were 130 allegations of fraud: only 0.00025%.

The situation in the U.S. follows a similar trend, but more potently along racial lines.

A UC San Diego study found that between 2008 and 2012, where there were strict voter ID laws, there was a substantial drop in voter turnout from minorities.

Underrepresented individuals often don’t have driver’s licenses because  they are more likely to take public transportation and less likely to own cars.

Seniors are also less likely to have identification because many don’t renew their driver’s licenses after they expire.

Illustration by Ania Webb
Illustration by Ania Webb

Having experienced the tedious process of voter registration in both countries, including the processes of getting a postal vote delivered to Santa Cruz for the U.K.’s election in June and moving my registration from Massachusetts to California for the 2016 election, I am convinced we should move toward a system of universal voter registration.

This would mean the automatic registration of eligible voters on government records. This shifts the burden of registering to vote from being solely on individuals to being shared with governments. This is practiced in many countries across the world, such as Sweden and Australia, which both see higher turnout than the U.K. or U.S.

Universal voter registration was part of Hillary Clinton’s platform as a candidate. This demonstrates the pragmatism that exists on both sides of the political spectrum. It aligns with the belief that wider voter registration, including for more underrepresented individuals, would largely benefit the Democratic Party.

While widening civil liberties shouldn’t be a partisan issue at all, the sect of Republicans in favor of voter restriction are preventing leveling the playing field in the first place. President Donald Trump claimed, with no proof, that between 3 and 5 million illegal voters cost him the popular vote in November’s election, joining the trend of using voter fraud as a front for discriminatory proposals.

If lower-income voters made up a larger portion of the electorate in either country, then parties would have to try to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters and canvas a wider number of issues. Restricting voting in a way that harms some populations more than others cements social mobility and has further reaching consequences than just an election result.

There is a solution: use legislative tools and pressure to encourage, not restrict voting. In 2015, Oregon passed the “Motor Voter” law, which automatically registers people to vote when they first get or renew their licenses. In September 2016, 300,000 Oregonians had registered in the last 12 months, and 75 percent of this was because of the new law.

Advocates can also build support and spur change. Thirty-one states in the U.S. now have online voting registration. In 2010, this number was only six. Back in my home country of Scotland, the Scottish Greens have begun a campaign against the “damaging and authoritarian” Conservative voter ID proposal that will harm the marginalized.

Voting must be encouraged, not limited, for democracy to thrive.