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It’s time for national standards on voting, registration

From Rev. Melvin Whitley, president of Action NC:

For those who oppose the new voting laws under consideration at the General Assembly, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder is a slap in the face. The proposed voting changes in North Carolina will suppress voting by groups purposely targeted for partisan gain, and African-American voting will likely decrease if they pass. This is an attack on democracy and on the purpose of the Voting Rights Act.

At a time when our legislature and others around the country are moving aggressively to restrict voting rights, the Supreme Court’s decision to reduce federal voting protections is ill-timed and ill-advised.

The court invited Congress to fix Section 4 of the VRA with a new coverage formula, but it’s unclear what formula could provide real protections and stand a chance of congressional approval. Without the VRA safety net against discrimination, the need for the federal government to adopt national systems and standards that make registering and voting easier and fairer is more urgent than ever.

Common-sense measures to ensure that voting increases rather than decreases include a national system for voter registration that is automatic and permanent, and uniform standards for early voting and same-day voter registration. These reforms that would take much of the partisan gamesmanship out of registration and voting, reduce the current crazy-quilt of voting rights that vary wildly from state-to-state, and avoid rules changes simply because one party did not care for the last election results. They also would enjoy bipartisan public support.

An automatic and permanent voter registration system is used by most other developed democracies. They register everyone when they come of voting age by assigning a voting identification number or other designation, rather like a Social Security number. And given that more than fifty million Americans — about one of every four eligible voters — are not properly registered — the need for a better system is indisputable.

As further benefit, this identification system would greatly reduce the high number of inaccurate registrations that plague our current voter rolls, and the substantial cost of maintaining those rolls. It also would provide the safeguards that voter identification proponents insist upon, but do so in a way that eliminates the inequitable burdens that requiring persons to obtain a voter identification place on the elderly and others.

Early voting, including Sunday voting, and same day registration have increased voter participation here in North Carolina and elsewhere, and are subject to reduction or elimination for that very reason. In a nation where less than two-thirds of eligible voters show up even for Presidential elections, going back to a registration and voting schedule that produces even fewer ballots is an attack on democracy.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech, the time is right to demand national legislation for easier and fairer ballot access. As someone who drank from segregated water fountains in downtown Raleigh as a child, celebrated the passage of the Voting Rights Act as a teen, has organized for voting and civil rights since then, and is appalled by our legislature’s efforts to reduce the votes of people of color and others, these reforms cannot come fast enough. They will not fix all the problems that gutting the Voting Rights Act has created, but they will help expand voter participation, and that is something everyone should support.

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