By Molly McGrath
Dilpreet* thought she was prepared when she showed up to her polling location. She was registered to vote, her name was on the rolls, and she brought three different forms of photo ID: her ID from her prior home state, her new alumni ID card Marquette University, and her old student ID, all with her name and picture. But because of the specific requirements of Wisconsin’s strict new photo ID law, she wasn’t allowed to cast her ballot. Wisconsin’s law mandates that voters show one type of ID from a very short list of options, and none of the three IDs she brought to the polls qualified.
“It was very frustrating, and I was extremely disappointed at the end of the day,” Dilpreet told me. “But, this experience will actually motivate me more in the future, because I know those laws are purposefully implemented to make it more challenging and demotivating. Voting means my voice gets represented in the issues that I care about, and the changes that I would like to see in our state and nation.”
Dilpreet’s experience is sadly not unique, and thankfully, neither is her perseverance. Voters increasingly encounter unnecessary obstacles that make it more difficult to exercise their most fundamental right. Specific and limited types of ID, proof of citizenship documentation, registration restrictions, and cuts to early voting are just some of the forms of voter suppression laws across the country that deliberately impede young people and people of color from voting.
The nation’s long and ugly history of voter suppression is no secret. Yet over the last decade, we’ve witnessed a modern-day resurrection, with a new breed of restrictive laws. After historically underrepresented groups turned out in record numbers in 2008 to vote for the nation’s first Black president, state legislators took notice — and began a nationwide campaign of voter suppression laws.
Things got worse in 2013. The Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), a law that for decades has protected the right to vote. The VRA garnered support from both political parties — including Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. This key section of the VRA essentially required places in the U.S. with the worst histories and continued race-based voting discrimination to ask the federal government for approval before enforcing new voting laws. That way, the federal government could ensure the change would not illegally discriminate against minority voters.
This combination created a new voting landscape: Since 2010, 25 states have enacted new laws restricting the right to vote — laws like the Wisconsin photo ID law that disenfranchised voters like Dilpreet. That key part of the VRA protected voters in nine of these 25 states.
But don’t get mad — get organized. Protecting our elections and the right to vote is not just a job for lawyers or the courts, it’s a job for all of us. We’re fighting back. We can win.
On a crisp Saturday afternoon in October, before the 2018 election, I joined volunteers to canvass low-turnout precincts on the north side of Milwaukee. One of the people I met was Omari*, an 18-year-old high school senior who told me he couldn’t wait to vote for the first time, especially after attending a rally with his friends a few days earlier.
But there were a few problems: It was less than two weeks out from the election, and Omari still wasn’t registered to vote. He kept a full schedule between school and a part-time job, so he hadn’t had the chance to register or get the necessary photo ID to vote under Wisconsin’s strict law. The same law that kept Dilpreet from voting threatened Omari’s vote.
On Election Day, volunteers helped Omari get to the DMV to obtain an ID that complied with the photo ID law. Then he headed to the polls, where he was able to register to vote that same day thanks to the availability of Election Day registration in Wisconsin. Upon casting his very first ballot, the poll workers excitedly rang a bell in celebration.
This level of determination and volunteer dedication fuels voting reform across the country. In Michigan in 2018, a broad coalition of groups organized around Promote the Vote, a ballot measure that voters overwhelming passed to make voting in the state more accessible and secure, including reforms like automatic voter registration, protections for military families, no-excuse absentee voting, and the ability to register on Election Day. Because of this people-powered movement, Michigan will see a very different election this year, with more eligible voters able to cast their ballots than ever before — voters like Omari, who would otherwise be sidelined by unnecessarily early registration cutoffs.
This year, the ACLU is continuing our work to press reforms that will expand access to the ballot. In Iowa, we’re working to restore the right to vote to people with past felony convictions upon completion of their sentences. In 2018, Florida voters passed a measure, Amendment 4, that re-enfranchised over a million Floridians with past felony convictions. Iowa can be next.
And as for protections under federal law? We’re urging members of Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore those vital anti-discrimination protections of the Voting Rights Act that we lost. The House already passed this important piece of legislation, and now it’s the Senate’s turn. Reaching out to your senator is as easy as hitting send.
With election season coming into full swing, this is just a preview of what’s happening across the country. Regardless of where you live, or how much or how little time you can contribute, we need you, and voters need you. After all, if your right to vote wasn’t your most powerful possession, you have to wonder why some people work so hard to take it away.
Molly McGrath is a voting rights campaign strategist for the ACLU’s national political advocacy department.
Over 4 million people will turn 18 between now and the 2020 election. MTV's +1thevote is encouraging all potential first-time voters to register and vote this November. It's time to make voting easier to do, and part of the milestones already happening in your life, from prom to graduation to birthdays. It's a year-long party and +1thevote is inviting you to help us shape the future. Who's your +1?
*Editor's note: Last names have been omitted for privacy.