Who gets to vote, and how?

The right to vote is the foundation of democracy, but determining who is entitled to vote and in which district is complicated. The states are empowered to determine election districts and voter eligibility, but Congress also may “make and alter” election laws. Legislatures and election officials have numerous tools to either promote or deter citizens’ participation in the democratic process. The 2016 presidential election is the first since the Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act. Several states, including those that previously needed federal approval to change their voting laws, are being sued over redistricting and voting restrictions.

Electoral districts. Race may be considered as a factor in determining election districts, but only to foster rather than undermine the ability of racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice. Gerrymandering to preserve political power is permitted to a certain degree, but extreme “fencing” designed to defeat voter preference may violate the equal protection clause. Important cases from North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin are pending in the Supreme Court and other federal courts.


Voter registration. The states set voter registration deadlines as well as identification requirements. Unless states receive federal approval, however, they must permit voters to prove their citizenship by signed affirmation. Approvals given to Alabama, Georgia and Kansas to require documentation of citizenship are being challenged as improperly granted. Federal law encourages states to update voter registration lists, but the automatic culling of registrants and the dispatchment of law enforcement officers to voters’ homes may be unlawful and is being challenged in Kansas and Georgia. States may ban convicted felons from voting. Most states restore voting rights after a sentence is served, but a few require a court or governor’s order. Since July, when the Virginia Supreme Court held that a blanket executive order restoring voting rights violated state law, the Democratic governor and Republican legislature have battled over the re-enfranchisement of eligible Virginians. 

Voter ID challenges. Proof of eligibility to register differs from proof of identity required to cast a ballot. Requirements for voter identification that are costly, difficult or impossible to obtain have been deemed unlawful. North Dakota and Texas have agreed to accept additional forms of identification for the 2016 election, but litigation from those states as well as Virginia, Wisconsin and North Carolina will not be finally determined until after the election.

Polling locations and voting methods. Voter participation increases when states establish convenient polling locations and hours, and allow early voting, mail-in balloting and provisional and out-of-precinct voting. Nevertheless, several states rescinded these popular voting options. Courts have blocked some changes, but others may be in effect for the November election. Every state permits poll monitors, but laws vary regarding their number, appointment and authority. Voter intimidation by partisan monitors is illegal but difficult to prevent. Election results may be affected by poorly formatted ballots, human and computer error, hacking and other deliberate tampering. Federal, state and local officials have tried since the 2000 debacle to improve voting methods, but no system is foolproof. Pre- and post-Election Day litigation is likely.

Electoral College. Every vote for president is actually a vote for a slate of electors assigned to the candidate. State laws and party rules determine whether electors are bound to vote for their party’s candidate when the Electoral College meets in December. Lawsuits undoubtedly will be filed if electors do not abide by the popular vote in their states.
• • •
The judiciary is the least democratic branch of government, but it stands as democracy’s last and worst guardian. The first and best guardians are the people themselves. Suffrage is not just a right; it is a responsibility that must be exercised lest it be lost. As the Catholic bishops and Pope Francis remind us, “Responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.”
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 7 months ago
“The right to vote is the foundation of democracy.” Is it? Did the founding fathers envision a donor class spending a $3 billion every year to lobby 535 members of congress? That’s in addition to another $3 billion the donor class spends every two years on congressional elections and then another $3 billion every four years on presidential elections. In November, 2015, America showed a graph of the US public’s trust in government (of the people, by the people, for the people) plunging to 10%. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the public’s trust in Fortune 500 CEOs, billionaires and their 10,000 lobbyists running the government has fallen to 10%.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Speaking in Chicago to a gathering of U.S. priests, Archbishop Wilton Gregory addressed racism, sexism and a host of other societal challenges that "continue to hold us captive."
Is the treatment being offered to Alfie Evans, a toddler suffering from a so-far-undiagnosed neurological disorder, moral, immoral or even medically inappropriate?
Kevin ClarkeApril 26, 2018
Young protesters call for an immigration bill to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at a rally in 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)
Archbishop Gomez called the USA Act a “good-faith compromise.”
J.D. Long-GarcíaApril 25, 2018
A new Pew Research Center poll finds that 87 percent of U.S. Catholics believe God is "all-loving," but only 67 percent say God is "all-powerful."