We need to talk about the right to vote

By Chris deLaubenfels, Director of Policy and Communications, Let America Vote

Twelve Democratic presidential candidates will be in Ohio on Tuesday for the fourth 2020 presidential primary debate. Over the first three debates, we have rightfully heard a lot from the candidates on healthcare, gun violence, and the economy. However, there has been silence on one critical issue: voting rights. In fact, throughout all of the 2016 presidential debates, there was not a single voting rights related question either. 

That needs to change. 

Ohio has been at the forefront of the GOP’s effort to suppress the vote of Americans, which is why the debate stage next week is the perfect forum for candidates to discuss protecting the right to vote.

Ohio voters have suffered from widespread voter purges over the last decade. While reasonable voter list maintenance–such as removing individuals who have moved out of state or have passed away–is important to maintain an accurate voter roll, across-the-board purges that stop eligible voters from voting are unnecessary and undemocratic. During his time as secretary of state, current Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted removed over two million Ohioans from the voter rolls. Of the voters who had their registration cancelled by Husted, roughly 800,000 were removed just because they didn’t vote in certain elections. Purges of less-frequent voters disproportionately disenfranchise low-income Ohioans, minorities, and Democrats. This is voter suppression, plain and simple. 

Unfortunately, this policy of punishing voters for not voting has continued under current Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Last month, LaRose purged over 194,000 Ohio voters. The vast majority of voters had their registration cancelled because they had not voted in enough recent elections. 

The Ohio GOP’s partisan gerrymandering has also restricted Ohioans ability to participate in their democracy. Ohio’s congressional map is one of the most severely gerrymandered in the country. In 2018, Ohio’s gerrymandered map led to Republicans winning 12 of 16 congressional districts even though they received only 52 percent of the statewide vote.

Gerrymandering is antithetical to democracy. It allows politicians to choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their politicians. It has led to partisan polarization in Washington and across the country. And it separates communities of interest, resulting in citizens being represented by politicians who might not understand their interests.  

When I voted in the 2018 midterm election in Cincinnati, I voted in the 1st congressional district. My neighbors living just a couple minutes away were in the 2nd congressional district. Why was Cincinnati divided? Because by dividing Cincinnati in two, Republicans were able to dilute the Democratic vote, preventing Cincinnatians from electing a candidate more in line with their views.

Three federal judges in Ohio–nominated by both Republican and Democratic presidents–found Ohio’s gerrymander to be unconstitutional. The court held that Ohio’s gerrymander “dilutes the votes of Democratic voters by packing and cracking them into districts so skewed toward one party that the electoral outcome is predetermined.” Nevertheless, in a 5-4 decision along traditional conservative-liberal ideological lines, the United States Supreme Court determined that extreme partisan gerrymandering is not the problem of the highest court in the land. It is now in the hands of American voters and elected officials to prevent gerrymandering. Americans deserve to hear from the Democratic candidates for president next week on how they plan to fight for fair maps.

It’s unfortunately pretty simple: Ohio Republicans are trying to rig our democracy in their favor, and similar tactics are being used across the country. Yet Americans have not heard a single question during the presidential debates about how candidates would stand up for voting rights. 

We deserve to hear from the candidates on an array of issues our nation is confronting, but voting rights and protecting our democracy from both domestic and foreign attacks can not be ignored. The right to vote is the right that protects all other rights. Without voter protections, all the policies that Democratic candidates say they will enact, from expanding healthcare to fighting climate change, will be impossible to achieve.