More now than at any time in two generations, the right to vote in the United States is under attack.
Impediments to the right to vote are being erected across the country, and they affect voters unevenly across lines of race, class, and age. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that this is precisely their purpose. Yet even where courts ultimately confirm improprieties exist, their remedies often fall short. Courts send laws back to legislators to be amended rather than abandoned, changes to the original texts may not be implemented, and of course, voters are disenfranchised as these legal and administrative processes play out. For these and other reasons, a voting rights agenda that relies principally on litigation may win some important victories, but will ultimately be incomplete.
The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society believes that pressing problems require sound analysis, innovative strategies, and collaborative, multi-pronged solutions. Grounded in our vision of an equitable society in which all can participate and belong, our work aims not only to remove barriers that exclude, but also to build capacity, infrastructure, and affirmative structures for inclusion. This brief articulates how that vision applies to voting rights as they relate to manifold sources of voter suppression.
The analysis and approach to voter suppression contained herein is motivated by a larger commitment to democratic principles and practices, and the goals of making government more responsive and equally accountable to all constituents. The suppression of votes is of course not the only issue within this ambit. It also includes the influence of money in politics, racial and partisan gerrymandering, and much more. But due to the immense interest across Haas Institute partners and networks, here we place our focus on research concerning a recent spate of restrictive voting laws. Through careful engagement with empirical studies of these laws, this brief calls on analysts, advocates, and donors to broaden their framing of the problem of voter suppression—and their conception of the tools for fighting it. The brief argues that an affirmative vision of voting rights must recognize factors currently treated as “background conditions” of voter suppression instead as causes on par with suppressive laws themselves. Taking this multi-causal view, we can see that the best investments for fighting voter suppression may be projects that build capacity and knowledge “on the ground”: comprehensive voter outreach, education, civic engagement, and community organizing and power-building.
Though litigation continues to be necessary, if the impact of restrictive voting laws is to be minimized in the short term and eliminated in the long term, champions of voting rights must also commit to fostering an inclusive, informed, and resolute electorate.