Views from Kansas: Voting shame
Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.
Long before President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act in 1993, Kansas was leading a charge to get citizens to the polls.
For decades, our secretaries of state campaigned for such reforms as advance voting, mailed ballots, more voting stations, greater access for registration, simpler rules and ID requirements. In the 1960s and ’70s a campaign for easier access was led by Kansas Secretary of State Elwill Shanahan; more reforms came under secretaries Jack Brier (1980s), Bill Graves (’80s-’90s) and Ron Thornburgh (’90s-2010).
All that has changed.
In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that had required federal clearance for a state to make substantive changes in its voting laws; the idea was to keep an eye on the Jim Crow states that favored discrimination. But the Court held a naive belief that roughly a half-dozen targeted states had outgrown the need for federal watch on their election habits. They were set free of federal “preclearance.” The rest could do as they pleased.
The trouble, as we have learned, was not limited to the South.
Immigration is now an issue salted with racial overtones. It has invited fear-based campaigns for election “reform” with renewed discriminations — a suffocating voter ID process, more gerrymandering, fiddling with polling place locations, schedules and equipment, among others.
Almost overnight, citizens were required to prove, in new multiple layers, that they were eligible to vote — or for many, white enough to vote. Hispanic Dodge City, with its single polling place moved out of town; Barton County, using polling places like peas in a shell game, are prime examples.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach led the charge. He persuaded voters that hordes of illegal immigrant “aliens” were about to swarm over our borders and corrupt our elections. For Kansas, this meant two-tier elections: one ballot — federal — for the less privileged and another — with both federal and state candidates — for the more fortunate. The law was vaporized in federal court, but not until after several elections with thousands of voters denied true ballots, and tens of thousands purged from registration lists.
This shame is not a Kansas franchise. Injustice is shared among other states that have found ways to prevent certain citizens from voting.
Small wonder that the United States ranks 26th of 32 developed democratic nations in voter turnout. Our 49 percent participation is pathetic compared with, say, Belgium (87 percent), Sweden (83 percent), and Australia (79 percent). These and other more civilized countries do not throw obstacles in the way of voters, they encourage participation.
In the last election, more than 50 million Americans, and nearly a million Kansans, either weren’t registered or didn’t vote. Yet we bragged about our high turnout.
How can we improve?
We’ve begun by showing Kobach the door. The next step is to encourage more registration without all the roadblocks. On the federal level, Congress must renew the attack on gerrymandering and laws that suppress even the inclination to vote.
If we’re really serious about our “democracy,” we could embrace automatic registration for all citizens at age 18, as happens in the more progressive countries. Next, we can have elections at a more convenient time than on Tuesday of a work week. We might even make a national holiday of voting; it’s that important.
Thomas Paine, a founder of our country, said voting is “the primary right by which all others are protected.”
Without more of that protection, we remain open to tyranny, to rule by a minority of voters.
— Originally published in The Salina Journal