On March 25th 2021, only four and a half months after the 2020 election, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law SB 202, a bill designed to limit the vote in a politically contentious state through restricting early voting and vote by mail; processes often used by communities of color. This bill is one of hundreds introduced in the state legislatures in almost every state. These bills will only weaken our increasingly fragile democracy, which like all representative democracies, is dependent upon a voter base that reflects the population. With states and local governments enacting a myriad of often contradictory policies, only Congress possesses the ability to fully protect the right to vote and prevent further backsliding of our democratic process. Consequently, it is imperative that Congress pass the Freedom to Vote Act, exercising its right under Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution to enact laws governing federal elections.
The Freedom to Vote Act ensures safe access to the fundamental right to vote. Among other provisions, the bill expands early and mail-in voting, guaranteeing a minimum of two weeks of early voting (including weekends) in conveniently located polling places, as well as establishing election day as a federal holiday. The bill ensures everyone can cast an absentee ballot regardless of reason and guarantees that security measures around mail in ballots are similar to in-person voting. It also restores the right to vote to disenfranchised individuals who have previously served felony sentences, reversing old Jim Crow laws that stripped the right to vote from those citizens. The bill establishes a set of principles that would help elections function more effectively for all and fulfills our country’s promise of free and fair elections for all citizens.
Expanding early and mail-in voting provides a clear path to increase voter participation and reduces long voting lines which have been a deterrent to people who may not have the time to wait in such lines. At times, cities, including larger cities such as Louisville, only have one polling place in the entire city, inevitably leading to excessively long lines on election day. Setting a baseline of two weeks of early voting will allow for citizens to vote on a day that does not interfere with work or family obligations. Likewise, expanding mail-in voting will also reduce lines at polling places and increase the percentage of the population who cast ballots. Statewide vote by mail already has been implemented in states such as Oregon and Utah: it has proven to be extremely secure and effective. In fact, the fraud rate in Oregon in 2018 was only .004 percent of every ballot cast. Additionally, designating election day a federal holiday will allow many people to vote without taking off work or fear of losing pay for exercising their fundamental right.
The restoration of voting rights to those with prior felony convictions is another provision that is important to enact. Previously, the state in which a person lived determined if they would receive all of their rights back after serving their sentence. Throughout history, segregationists used the lack of a restoration law to disenfranchise Black Americans, locking them up for trivial or arbitrary reasons thereby permanently revoking their voting rights. Formerly incarcerated citizens must pay taxes when they are released and are expected to integrate into society. Therefore they should have the right to vote as they have repaid their debt to society.
Freedom to Vote Act opponents claim that the bill is a federal takeover of elections meant to politically favor the Democratic party. However, expanding voter turnout has not always favored one party over another, and vote by mail, in particular, does not provide a partisan advantage. A careful examination of the Freedom to Vote Act reveals that there is no provision that does not apply equally to both parties. Early voting and vote by mail can be used by everybody regardless of political affiliation. Congress should set baseline regulations to ensure the maximum voter turnout. The bill does not change the administration of elections, which will still be overseen by counties, which is vital to election security as a decentralized process ensures bad actors at the national level cannot influence the outcome of an entire election.
When it comes to elections, larger turnout means our government has to be accountable to all of us, rather than a select few. We live in the oldest democracy in the world and the bedrock of that democracy is the right to vote. As such, we must not only fight against laws chipping away at that bedrock, but also promote laws that expand voting rights and consequently strengthen our democracy.