Spotlight Exclusives

Voting Rights and the Implications for Low-Income Americans

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Voting rights took center stage in the 2016 presidential campaign recently as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laid out a series of reforms intended to improve access to the ballot box. In addition to outlining new proposals, Clinton called voting restrictions “a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other.”

Clinton۪s remarks have come in the wake of a broader national debate around these issues, with the Supreme Court striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and a number of state legislatures enacting stringent voter ID laws and other restrictions.

In a January Politico piece, Sean McElwee of Dos explained that in the 2012 election “80.2 percent of those making more than $150,000 voted, while only 46.9 percent of those making less than $10,000 voted.” This “class bias” in turnout, McElwee continued, “is a persistent feature of American voting.”

While many argue that reforms such as stricter voter ID laws and restrictions on voter registration drives are necessary to protect electoral integrity, others contend that the new requirements are an overreaction to a nearly non-existent problem and will disproportionately suppress the turnout of low-income Americans. Research suggests the prevalence of voting fraud preventable through voter ID laws is near zero.

In contrast to these restrictions, Clinton۪s proposals for reform include automatic voter registration, automatic updates of voter registration when individuals move, and lengthy early voting periods.

Vishal Agraharkar of the Brennan Center for Justice highlighted the disparate impacts of voter ID laws in a 2014 Spotlight commentary. “Low-income Texans disproportionately African Americans and Hispanics were also more than eight times as likely as higher-income Americans to lack acceptable ID,” Agraharkar explained in his criticism of the Texas law. Agraharkar highlighted the example of one low-income Texas resident who would have had to “spend months saving up the necessary $42 to obtain her birth certificate from Mississippi, which would allow her to apply for a new photo ID” in Texas.

But many conservatives feel that criticisms are overblown and that voter ID laws strike a sensible balance between preserving access to the polls and discouraging fraud. In response to Clinton۪s remarks Wisconsin governor and likely presidential candidate Scott Walker called her “out of touch” with “mainstream America,” lauding his own state۪s ID requirement that makes “it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

In recent years, much of the political terrain around voter rights has consisted of Republican state legislatures advocating for new voting regulations and liberals pushing back against these measures. Clinton۪s recent comments suggest a desire to not just play defense, but to actively push for new laws aimed at increasing voter registration and turnout.

This tension between a vision of an inclusive franchise and another involving higher burdens to vote will likely come with tremendous implications for low-income Americans. Spotlight will continue to follow these debates as the 2016 election approaches.

Posted by Hannah

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