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Michael A. Cohen

When it comes to voting, America is stuck in the Dark Ages

A voting booth in Miami Beach, Fla., on Aug. 28, 2018.
A voting booth in Miami Beach, Fla., on Aug. 28, 2018.(Bloomberg photo/Scott McIntyre)

The United States is the oldest democracy in the world. We have been electing presidents and members of Congress for more than two centuries. We’re also the most prosperous and powerful country in the world. We can send men and women to outer space and possess armed forces that can project US military power to practically every corner of the world.

Yet, when it comes to voting, America is still operating in the Dark Ages.

This week, early voting began in the state of Georgia, and in Cobb County, residents were forced to wait in line for three hours to cast a ballot, in part because there’s one early voting location open in the county this week.

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These kind of long lines are all too often the norm at election time — turning the most basic and ideally least onerous exercise of constitutional rights into a time-consuming burden or worse, deterring people from even casting a ballot.

In North Dakota, a recent Supreme Court decision upholding the state’s strict voter ID law has forced Sioux tribal leaders into “crisis mode” over how to get their members properly registered before next month’s midterm elections. The tribal heads are, according to one report, “in a race against the clock to make sure their voters have the right addresses on their IDs.”

The tortured voting experience in Georgia and North Dakota is increasingly becoming the norm in far too many places in America. Actually, let me correct that: becoming the norm in far too many places where Republicans are in charge.

Ever since the Supreme Court carved up the Voting Right Act in 2013 and no longer required states with a history of racial discrimination to receive clearance from the federal government to change voting processes, there’s been a full-scale assault on voting rights in America by Republicans — usually under the guise of preventing voter fraud, which is a serious problem that does not exist.

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Voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, and voter purges are just some of the gimmicks that Republicans have used to curb the franchise of Americans. In 2016, a federal appeals court threw out a state law in North Carolina that the court said targeted African-American voters with “surgical precision.” This hasn’t stopped Republican state legislators from imposing new restrictions this cycle on early voting with the same racial intentions.

In Georgia, long lines are the least of state’s voting problems. The GOP gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp, is also Georgia’s secretary of state, and his office has spent years putting up voting obstacles — and continues to do so.

His office has investigated groups that register new minority voters, implemented an “exact match” policy on voter registrations that purges voters if they don’t precisely match other state records, and reduced the number of places to vote in the state. Meanwhile, Kemp warned fellow Republicans that if Democrats keep “registering all these minority voters that are out there . . . they can win these elections in November.”

Unsurprisingly, his efforts are disproportionately aimed at African-American voters.

Speaking of voter purges, earlier this year the Supreme Court upheld an Ohio law that allows the state to purge voters from the polls if they don’t vote in two straight elections. The policy may affect as many as two million people in the state.

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These efforts are being replicated across red-state America. If there’s any hope to reverse this trend, it will come, ironically, at the ballot box.

There are number of pro-voter initiatives on the ballot this fall, including a constitutional amendment in Florida to restore the rights of convicted felons, automatic registration in Nevada, and a wholesale reform of election laws in Michigan.

Hope may also come in the form of electing Democrats on the state level. After Democrats won the New Jersey governor’s mansion in 2017, the state legislature passed legislation earlier this year allowing for automatic voter registration. In Washington, after Democrats took control of the state legislature, they went a step further and passed laws allowing for automatic and Election Day registration.

Democrats do benefit politically from this, but there’s no crime in having good politics and good policy occasionally intersect. Republicans have made the cynical decision that if they cannot win fair and square at the voting booth, they will use intimidation and suppression to hold on to power. A political party that believed it had a policy agenda that can attract a broad cross-section of the electorate would want everyone to vote, not just the privileged few. As the electorate becomes even more polarized by race — and with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court and Republicans controlling a majority of state legislatures — these efforts are likely to continue. Make no mistake: voting rights are on the ballot on Election Day — but so is the opportunity to make voting easier, which is the way it should be in a functioning and confident democracy.

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It’s all the more reason for every American to vote this November. If you don’t use it, you could very well lose it.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.