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A Letter to PBS: Let's Talk About Making it Easier for Everyone to Vote in the Democratic Debate on Thursday

Feb 9, 2016
In The News

Huffington Post 

Dear Public Broadcasting Service:

We have had 13 presidential debates and heard from the candidates on a wide range of issues from White House floral arrangements to presidential eligibility, yet voting rights is glaringly absent from the conversation. In fact, Democratic candidates have only spent about three minutes on the topic over their five debates. We urge PBS to include the topic of voter participation in Thursday's Democratic Presidential debate in Milwaukee.

By failing to have a substantive dialogue about voting rights, debate moderators and candidates are ignoring a disturbing trend. Across the nation, the democratic process is being undermined through voter suppression laws. Thursday's democratic debate is the time to outline a plan to make it easier to vote.

Since the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, which weakened the Voting Rights Act (VRA), laws limiting voter participation have been enacted in states across the country. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, since the beginning of the 2015 legislative session at least 113 bills have been introduced in 33 states that would require photo ID, reduce early voting, or make voter registration more difficult. For instance, 16 states--including Wisconsin--will have new voter restriction laws in place for this election, which they did not have in 2012.

In Wisconsin, the partisan voter ID law places huge burdens on voters around the state. Residents who live in rural counties where the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has limited hours, homeless veterans concentrated in cities like Milwaukee, and students with technical college IDs, who typically come from lower income households face additional hurdles to get the proper IDs needed to vote. In one particular case, a homeless veteran in Milwaukee spent two years making trips to the DMV and Social Security office because his government issued veterans license was not accepted at the polls.

It is no coincidence that these laws are designed to deliberately make it harder to for people of color, young people, low-income individuals, and seniors to vote.

It is also not surprising why voting rights have not come up in GOP debates. Conservatives help advance their policy agenda by suppressing the vote of folks who care about social security, student debt, universal health care and affordable housing. They look the other way while voters wait in line for hours to vote, or are unable vote because they can't leave their job while the polls are open.

Given that the 2016 election will be the first presidential contest in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA, it is more important than ever for Democratic candidates to detail their plans to ensure the American people have a voice in the electoral process.

Voter restriction laws have consequences. A recent study at UC-San Diego found that strict ID laws could be expected to depress the Latino vote turnout by 9.3 points, African-American turnout by 8.6 points, and Asian-American turnout by 12.5 points. This dispels the myth that voter ID laws don't harm participation rates.

Additionally, wealthy Americans vote at much higher rates than low income Americans--and our economic policies reflect this. When low income Americans vote in greater numbers, elected officials implement more policies that serve them. We can no longer ignore how low voter participation affects the future of our country.

Grassroots organizers across the country are already working to connect the issues facing working families to the right to vote. This past weekend at the Congressional Progressive Caucus summit, we heard from Reverend William Barber II, organizer of Moral Mondays, who emphasized the need to address voting rights.

While the right to vote is inherent throughout our nation's founding documents, there is nothing in the Constitution that explicitly guarantees our right to vote. As authors of a constitutional amendment to affirm the right to vote, we believe it is crucial to frame Thursday's debate around voting rights.

The people should be selecting their leaders, not the other way around. Our democracy is strongest when everyone is able to participate, and it is time to fulfill that promise to the American people.


Rep. Mark Pocan (WI-02)
Rep. Keith Ellison (MN-05)