“Every election is determined by the people who show up.” ― Larry J. Sabato, Pendulum Swing

There was a time in American history where in order to vote you would have to answer this question – “Did your grandfather vote?” – and present proof of your grandfather’s voting eligibility in order to cast a ballot. Since America’s founding, there has been a slow but positive trend in American voting laws. More and more people have been allowed to cast ballots for elected officials; what was once a privileged reserved for wealthy, white, landowning men has become nearly universal. However, there are forces chiseling away at this cornerstone of American democracy.

Naomi Kline once said, “Democracy is not just the right to vote, it is the right to live in dignity.” Today is National Voter Registration Day, and our nation’s dignity is suddenly under attack as we head into what some have called “the most important election in recent history.” I have spent enough time nose-deep in political campaigns to know this phrase inevitably gets tossed around in almost every election. This time it may be true but not for the reasons candidates and their campaigns give you. In order for us to, as a country, deal with the most pressing issues, such as healthcare, the national debt or comprehensive immigration reform,  we must ensure that all citizens are allowed to cast a ballot. You can, and should, worry about the future of your healthcare and building the economy, but the issue of voter suppression will forever affect our nation’s character and future. Are we still going to be a democracy or will suffrage begin to degrade?

There is an effort afoot to prevent people from voting, and even though it is not as overt as the suppression efforts in post-civil war southern states that were intended to keep African Americans from going to the polls, it has the potential to be equally damaging to the integrity of our elections. Since 2011, 25 laws and two executive actions have been enacted in 19 states, which will prevent many citizens from voting; 17 of these actions will be in place in time to effect the 2012 election in jurisdictions accounting for 80% of the electoral votes needed to secure the presidency. These laws range in scope from requiring a photo ID and/or proof of citizenship to cast a ballot or register to vote to limiting same day registration and shortening early voting times. The stated justification for these new restrictions is the prevention of voter fraud; however, repeated attempts to investigate voter fraud have found it to be rare and not pervasive. The effects of these laws, however, can have a damaging effect on the ability of the most disenfranchised voters to cast ballots; 10% of voting-eligible citizens do not have a driver’s license or a picture ID and thus cannot vote. In swing states, this could completely change the outcome of elections. The effects of these new restrictions even extend to individuals who have voted before, sometimes for decades, but can be suddenly turned away from their polling places because they cannot meet the new ID requirements.

Who are these newly disenfranchised voters? Mostly the elderly and those who are impoverished. In other words, the same people who already struggle to access services and institutions in our society. It’s no longer enough to prove that you are a citizen or that your grandfather could vote – you must prove your voter eligibility based on a standard that requires the purchase of a government ID. These statutes are tantamount to poll taxes, which is why courts have been ruling against them.

Voter suppression laws threaten the very integrity of our elections. Once every two years we take a show of hands and decide who will be our leaders. Let us take note of this remarkable freedom and on this National Voter Registration Day take a few moments to reflect on the greatness of American democracy and the process which serves to ensure freedom for us all. Call your family, your friends and your coworkers and make sure they are registered, and on election day when we ask for a show of hands, do not sit back and watch; join in, and between now and then fight to make sure everyone who wishes may can vote without question or interference.

Image Courtesy of Thinkprogress.