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Stand Up for Voting Rights

Students of American history often learn that Americans’ voting rights expanded with the growth of the nation. However, as Harvard professor Alexander Keyssar ’69 emphasizes in his book, The Right to Vote, practical voting access has not expanded as consistently. Though African Americans and women famously won the right to vote through constitutional amendments, local and state policies often deprived these and other groups of the franchise through more oblique avenues. “Justified as measures to eliminate corruption or produce a more competent electorate,” Keyssar explains, states and localities imposed literacy tests, lengthened residency periods, and complicated voter registration procedures. The practical goal and effect of such measures, Keyssar notes, was to “purify” the electorate, drastically reducing the voting participation of poor, uneducated, immigrant and–particularly in the South–black voters.

Throughout US history, fears about voter fraud and competency have justified policies that aimed at the systematic disenfranchisement of demographic groups considered unworthy to vote. This year, once again, concerns about voter fraud have emerged to restrict voting rights. This year alone, more than 30 state legislatures have considered new laws which would introduce new barriers to entry for voting. These laws, at various stages in different legislatures, would disproportionately affect poor, elderly, student, and minority voters. Although the precise measures being considered vary from state to state, most proposed laws would invalidate currently accepted forms of voter identification. Under these laws, even current voters would be forced to acquire less accessible identification documents. In North Carolina, an estimated one million voters would be disenfranchised based on the documents they currently have.

The forms of identification which would remain acceptable under these new laws are not equally accessible to all groups within the voting public. Many take significant time, money, or travel to acquire resources that are not distributed evenly across all Americans and would systematically pose higher barriers to entry for certain groups. For example, 2006 nationwide study found that 78 percent of African-American males 18 to 24 lacked a valid driver’s license. The same survey concluded that voting age citizens earning less than $35,000 in annual income were more than twice as likely to lack a government-issued ID that those in higher income brackets.

Some provisions of these laws would also require college students who choose to vote in the state where they attend school to register for additional state identification. College-issued student identification would no longer suffice as proof of residency or personal identification. In some states, college students whose place of residence changes from year-to-year would have to obtain new documentation at each move. Students who attend school out-of-state would be forced to choose, in such cases, between being licensed to drive in their place of birth, or being able to vote in their place of residence

Today, as in earlier times when the politically powerful sought to restrict suffrage, voter fraud is the most frequently cited reason for heightened voting requirements and restrictions. While we strongly believe that basic election regulations should be in place, recent studies have found voter fraud to be virtually non-existent in the United States. In 2002, for example, the Bush administration launched a five-year Justice Department investigation into voter fraud. By the study’s completion in 2007 the administration found no evidence of any organized efforts to skew federal voting in elections. On the other hand, restrictions that systematically make it harder for specific groups to vote would skew election results. The more that states restrict the pool of active voters, the less representative our government will be.

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Although Massachusetts is not one of the many states considering new restriction on the franchise, we have an obligation to stay informed and advocate for the rights of our peers in other states. Please consider looking into the specific situation in your home state, spread the word, and add your name to our petition to state legislators across America urging them to oppose further, restrictive voting requirements.

Jacob J. Cedarbaum ’12, a Crimson editorial writer living in Currier House. He is a member of the IOP’s National Campaign Committee.

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