Panel addresses history of voting and voter suppression

March 13, 2020

We get the democracy that we deserve and demand, according to Jay Koffman ’68, MA ’73, the founding director of Beacon Leadership Collaborative and a former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and moderator of Voting and Democracy in 2020 and Beyond, an event put on by the Brandeis Politics Department on March 9 in Rapaporte Treasure Hall. The event also featured State Senator and Brandeis alum Rebecca Roust ’01, John Shattuck, professor at the Tufts School of Diplomacy and Harvard’s Kennedy School and Boston City Councilor for District One Lydia Edwards. The panelists discussed the state of voting and democracy in the United States, covering both the history of the struggle to expand the vote and modern attempts to restrict the right to vote.

Summing up the history of voting in the United States, Shattuck described voting as “the cornerstone of democracy,” but said that it had long been withheld from the majority of Americans. At the country’s founding, Shattuck said, the right to vote was not guaranteed, and the only people who could vote were property-owning white men. The next two centuries, he said, saw important steps forward for voting equality, such as the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, which nominally allowed all men to vote, the Nineteenth Amendment, passed in 1920, which gave women the right to vote, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Supreme Court decisions which overturned Jim Crow laws and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, passed in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18. 

Voting in recent years, Shattuck said, has been characterised by systemic efforts to make it harder to vote, especially for minorities. These practices, which Shattuck characterized as a “war on the vote,” include voter ID laws, the purging of voter rolls and gerrymandering. Shattuck ended by saying that “we’re in a critical moment for democracy in America.”

Roust spoke about clerical and logistical issues which can prevent people from being able to vote, saying that “even in Massachusetts people get turned away from the polls.” She spoke about the importance of automatic voter registration and advocated for Massachusetts to switch from front-end automatic voter registration, where people are automatically registered to vote when they get a driver’s license or complete certain other state forms, and given the chance to opt out on the form, to back-end automatic voter registration, where people are automatically registered and must reach out to the state to opt out. Roust also argued for Massachusetts to move its state primary to earlier in the year, saying that the current Massachusetts law which mandates holding it seven weeks before the general election lowers turnout.

Edwards spoke about her experiences campaigning and said that she was able to win by reaching out to potential voters to whom no one else had reached out. She said that campaigning in multiple languages was crucial to her success, as well as a willingness to be present outside of an election year. She spoke about the need for the United States to have a culture of voting, and for people to believe that their votes matter. On voter suppression, she said that she feels “encouraged to hear how hard they’re working to suppress the vote, because it means we’re winning.”

The panel was asked about ranked choice voting, which they supported, saying that it encouraged politicians to try to appeal to a broader coalition and behave more civilly.