This year, to vote in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I have to print an absentee ballot application form from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website and mail the form about two to three weeks before the election so I receive the ballot in time to return it before polls close on March 1. None of that would matter, of course, if I had not registered to vote before Feb. 10, which is actually pretty easy, since I live in Massachusetts, and my state became the 21st to pass online voter registration in June. I am lucky, because my state is one of 33 states that offer online registration. I am lucky, because my state is making steps toward expanding my ability to vote.
The absentee-ballot shuffle is not unfamiliar to Georgetown students. Voter turnout among young people is important to us, and America’s young people voted about 30 points below America’s old people in the last presidential election. We want to have a voice in the political process, but if it seems that our voice is getting progressively more elusive, that’s because it is.
The 2016 presidential election will be the first without Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act since its enactment in 1965. Section 4(b) offered a formula to identify states with histories of voter discrimination — literacy tests, poll taxes and other racist laws and practices — and subject them to Section 5’s preclearance requirements. In other words, states with a history of structural racism and a tendency to pass sketchy voting laws had to ask the Department of Justice before moving forward with legislation that could make voting harder for groups like minority voters, low-income voters and young people.
In the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, however, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) because “the Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem,” and structural racism was apparently no longer an extraordinary problem in 2013. A 5-4 ruling determined that selectively applying federal restrictions to state legislation was unconstitutional, and states like Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama rushed to pass voter ID laws and cut back on early and absentee voting before Congress could pass a legislative fix to the VRA that would satisfy the Supreme Court and protect voters from discrimination.
Luckily, we have a legislative fix to the VRA; unluckily, we are counting on Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to give the Voting Rights Advancement Act a hearing, and Goodlatte has refused. Incidentally, Goodlatte has not refused $764,446 in large individual contributions and PAC contributions in 2016 alone. Only 2 percent of Goodlatte’s overall campaign contributions are from small donors, but he is not worried about it, because the 2010 Citizens United and 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC Supreme Court decisions have opened a very large door for a very large amount of money to have a very large impact on which bills get hearings. Fun fact about Citizens United, McCutcheon and Shelby: The Koch brothers helped pay for litigating all three cases.
Here’s the point: You can vote. You should vote. You should jump through whatever hoops you need to jump through so you can exercise your right to political participation in 2016, but you should not have to. Working people should not have to. Rosanell Eaton should not pass a literacy test in 1942, vote for 70 years and fail North Carolina’s voter ID law in 2015 because the name on her voter registration card does not match the name on her license. Corporate interests should not be allowed to spend $764,446 so Goodlatte can keep his constituents from voting. Mitch McConnell R-Ky. and the Senate Judiciary Committee should not be allowed to stall for a Supreme Court that will continue to privatize democracy.
Here’s the other point: You can change the way we vote. Online registration is not the only new law protecting this year’s elections, and Massachusetts is not the only state that is passing them. The majority of Americans favor stronger campaign finance laws and restoring the Voting Rights Act, and everyone from President Obama to comedian Larry David has raised the public consciousness on the obstacles facing a strong democracy in a way that connects them to a successful one. From April 16 to 18, over 170 national advocacy groups representing a diverse set of movements and millions of members will gather in Washington, D.C., to participate in Democracy Awakening, where they will demand a democracy that listens to everyone, including teach-ins, rallies and demonstrations.
Ultimately, a just and equal society — racially, economically, socially and politically — begins and ends with a government that is accountable to the voices of its people, and Georgetown students have a long history of compelling their government to listen. You can change the way we vote, and you should.
Katharine Viles is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.