Opinion: The meaning of voting rights

This week’s Community Forum is by Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos.
The term ‘voting rights’ is thrown around all too often today as a buzzword and policy stance that’s used as a political football.
We must never forget that the right to vote is enshrined in our Constitution. Efforts to deny or restrict any eligible voter’s right to vote are an affront to our democracy. Every new denial chips away at the very bedrock upon which the foundation of our country was built.
Unfortunately, over the past few decades we have seen a growing wave of voting restrictions across the United States. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013 has opened up the floodgates even further for partisan attempts to disenfranchise voters and suppress voter turnout, under the guise of nonexistent widespread voter fraud.
These cynical and sinister tactics vary -— usually manifesting in the form of discriminatory strict voter ID laws, unnecessarily aggressive voter roll purging, closing of polling locations, shortened early voting opportunities, and gerrymandered districts, rigged to ensure lasting party-control where politicians choose their voters and not the other way around.
These attempts are being stamped out, one by one, through legal action, and are being exposed for the raw power grabs that they are. Unfortunately this usually happens long after the damage has been done and voters have been blocked or otherwise dissuaded from participating in their democracy.
However, there is a silver lining.
States are pushing back — some examples of this trend to increase voters’ rights and access include:
•  Florida approved the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons.
•  New Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania are moving to paper ballots.
•  Michigan passed measures to add no-excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration, election-day registration, and policies to eliminate gerrymandering
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 230 bills have been filed in 31 states to expand voting rights.
As of right now, 16 states plus the District of Columbia, have enacted automatic voter registration, and 17 states plus the District of Columbia offer same day voter registration. I am proud to say that in Vermont we have enacted both of these important voter access measures.
Bills introducing automatic voter registration and same day registration are popping up in legislatures across the country, both red states and blue.
Let’s use this momentum to usher in a new era of voting rights. Today I call upon my colleagues in other states, state legislative leaders, and our members in Congress, to ensure that every eligible voter who wishes to cast a ballot on or before Election Day actually can.
To those who don’t know where to start, I encourage them to look to Vermont. With tri-partisan support, we have implemented automatic voter registration, election day registration, online voter registration, on-line early ballot request, no-excuse 45 day early voting periods, and a careful, thoughtful approach to voter checklist maintenance, which errs on the side of voter access.
Since 2013 we have focused on cybersecurity by using many known best practices. We have strengthened our firewalls, added intrusion detection equipment, use common-sense, voter-marked paper ballots, post-election audits (with high statistical confidence), and we conduct daily backup of our voter registration database. Additionally, we have implemented a new state of the art accessible voting system with an ADA-approved, universal design.
In Vermont we have made it easy to register and to vote, and hard to cheat.
Vermont is not alone: there are other states who are pushing forward to enfranchise their voters. However, the right to vote or the requirements to register should not be dictated by a line in the dirt between states.
I believe it’s time that Congress took action to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that have been stripped away, and create minimum standards for voter registration and voter access, while leaving it to the states to carry out elections according to those minimum standards.
Free and fair elections are the foundation of a healthy democracy, and the right to vote is the bedrock that this foundation rests on. It’s time to fortify that foundation and keep on building.

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