The other day, a friend asked what surprised me most about politics. This may seem strange, but I’d never really thought about the question.
My response was off-the-cuff but heartfelt. The biggest surprise is also among my biggest disappointments with American political life: the ongoing effort by politicians to suppress votes.
When I began in politics, I thought that everyone was on board with the idea that the more people who vote, the better. Boy was I naïve.
The truth is, people work hard to prevent other people from voting. They do this by requiring voter IDs — and then limit which IDs are valid (a gun permit is fine, for instance, but not a student ID). They close polling places, often in poor and minority communities. They conduct sweeping purges of voter rolls or restrict eligibility for absentee ballots. They refuse to invest in elections infrastructure, resulting in breakdowns and long lines that discourage potential voters. And that’s only a partial list.
The people who oppose making it easier to vote often cite as their reason that they’re trying to prevent voter fraud. But rampant voter fraud simply doesn’t exist in this country. Efforts to prove that it exists have failed. There is simply no tidal wave of illegal voting in the U.S.
What does exist, though, is an epidemic of efforts to suppress the vote, a basic right of citizenship. Voting is the foundation of a democracy — people’s ability to participate and engage with the issues facing their communities and their country. I’ve always believed that you win power by convincing people that your ideas and proposals are right. Winning power by keeping people away from the polls is a perversion of what democracy is about.
Because voting laws are in the hands of the states, there are plenty of counter-examples — states that have worked to make voting easier, to expand hours, to allow same-day registration, and the like. But this struggle, between expanding the vote and trying to limit it, is not going to be resolved any time soon.
I’m always distressed when I encounter efforts to suppress the vote. But I take heart from the fact that over the course of American history, the dominant trend has been to expand citizens’ access to the polls, and I hope that over the long term, we continue in that direction.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, representing a district in south central Indiana.