Republicans at the state level have moved swiftly to either roll back some easy access to voting or put new obstacles in the way of voters following losses in the 2020 presidential and US Senate elections. These moves have sparked a renewed battle over voting rights.
Here are answers to key questions about voting in the US and these GOP-led efforts to curb voting access:
Can’t everyone over 18 in the US vote? How can states restrict access?
Yes. It took a long time to get from white landowners voting in the first presidential election to the 24th Amendment, enacted in 1964, which says:
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”
That did away with poll taxes and, paired with the Voting Rights Act, ended many of the Jim Crow-era tricks that kept many Black Americans from voting.
But not everyone over the age of 18 can vote — noncitizens and felons, in most places, although there are efforts to re-enfranchise felons. Notably, they can vote in Florida after voters there approved a ballot initiative in 2018.
States have the power to govern their own elections, but Congress has the power to place rules on them. And the courts often get involved.
Nearly every state requires some kind of voter registration and many require an ID to vote and there are many different versions of absentee voting and the hours during which people in different states can vote early or on Election Day.
Why not just have everyone vote at the same time and in the same way?
Election Day is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. (It’s been that way for a long time.) But the US is a country of 50 states and more than 330 million people of varying degrees of education and engagement. There’s something to be said for flexibility. Many people work odd hours. They work multiple jobs. And the Constitution puts states in charge of their elections, although Congress can regulate them.
The difficulty is making sure everyone has the same access to the polls while also maintaining the necessary amount of security. A complication is that when there are normal voting hours, it’s often people in cramped urban areas that end up waiting for hours. Early voting and voting by mail are alternatives to remove that barrier.
What’s the history of rules about who can vote in US elections?
Voter registration is relatively unique to the US and has a long history of racism. It started in New England in the 1800s, was a key element of Jim Crow in the South, and then saw a huge uptick in the early 1900s as states tried to make it more difficult for immigrants and Jewish and Black Americans from voting.
The government makes people pay taxes, why can’t it just register them to vote?
The US has been slowly moving toward easier and, in some states, automatic registration, but the rules still vary by state. In the 1990s, under President Bill Clinton, Congress approved a reform that tied voter registration to the DMV. Most now have some form of online registration. Many states allow same-day voter registration, but in others there are deadlines. North Dakota doesn’t have any voter registration at all.
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