The best protection against rigged elections

The Observer editorial board

Republican efforts to limit early voting have had an impact on the 2016 election.
Republican efforts to limit early voting have had an impact on the 2016 election. AFP/Getty Images

If you’re following the 2016 election as closely as we are, you’ve probably moved past poll-watching and taken a deep dive into the data pool of early voting numbers. It’s a good way to track which demographics are voting, which are enthusiastic and, importantly, which party is getting new voters out to the polls. (A warning, though: It probably won’t make you fret any less about Tuesday.)

Early voting numbers are revealing in another way, too: They provide a stark reminder of how lawmakers exert their will on the electoral process – and why Americans have grown increasingly cynical about it.

In North Carolina and other states, decisions by Republican lawmakers have had a significant – and intended – impact on this election. There are fewer early voting sites available in the first week than in 2012, and some sites that were eliminated were places where African Americans made up a large percentage of registered voters. The result is lagging African American voting numbers that are just now beginning to catch up to 2012 levels.

Similar narratives can be found in other states, which like North Carolina have seen lawsuits over voter suppression laws and polling place closures. It’s an uneven, politicized approach to a foundational part of democracy.

There’s a solution: Congress should reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, with new features that apply not just to a handful of states but ensure fair voting laws throughout the country.

Some background: The 1965 Voting Rights Act required nine states and dozens of counties (including 40 in North Carolina) to secure federal approval, or pre-clearance, before changing any election laws. The act has been updated and reauthorized, but then, three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law by striking down a section that lays out a formula for determining which states are covered.

We agreed with that ruling, not because we believed the VRA should be weakened, but because the formula in dispute was based on 40- to 50-year-old data that had little resemblance to reality today. Congress, we said then, should update the VRA to protect voters.

Congress didn’t, and states such as North Carolina took advantage by passing voter suppression laws. Even after a federal court threw out our state’s Voter ID law in July, Republicans were able to limit or eliminate early voting hours at sites across North Carolina.

Restoring the Voting Rights Act would allow the Justice Department to quickly review such voting laws and rule on them before Election Day. One bill in Congress would do that and more. The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 would restore the expired Voting Rights Act but apply it to all states. The bipartisan bill, which has more than 100 co-sponsors, also would include transparency provisions that require advance notice for late-in-the-election voting changes involving polling places and ID requirements.

Such issues are important, perhaps especially this year as Americans more vocally question the integrity of elections. Those objections are often overstated, we think. The elections aren’t rigged, but they’re also not evenly accessible. Congress should protect the vote, and protect American voters, by making elections fair for all.