Commentary: Ensuring the right to vote (and exercising it)

VOTE: Woman shares her message at a 2015 march in Morristown.


By Linda Stamato

It may feel like an endless political campaign already, but it’s just starting folks. The Iowa caucuses this week have given us something of an insight from voters about the Democratic Party candidates, and a fairly sure bet about what will happen in Republican primaries nationwide.

I want to jump ahead to November, though, when the nation goes to the polls to choose its next president. This crucial election is threatened by efforts to suppress voting rights. It matters!

Linda Stamato
Linda Stamato

This week we should be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution— guaranteeing that no government, federal or state, can deny voting rights to any male citizens.  Yet we have cause to worry about it.

For most of that history, it’s been an uphill fight.  It still is.

It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the right to vote was protected by federal power. It made a difference. Such a difference that the United States Supreme Court decided in 2013 it no longer was needed!

The three women on the Supreme Court saw through a desperate ploy, by means of a voter identification law, to racially discriminate and disenfranchise voters in Texas. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the effort “the strictest regime in the country.”

Ginsberg defended “preclearance,” a core part of the Voting Rights Act that required federal approval over changes to local election rules in places with a history of discrimination.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is ‘like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”’

Nonetheless, the majority on the Supreme Court saw it differently, striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, in Shelby v Holder.

In no small measure of irony, the Justices’ ruling came 150 years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

After the Supreme Court decision ended federal supervision of voting rights, we watched as certain states, having had the yoke lifted, rushed to limit access to the voting booth, introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it hard to vote.

These have ranged from strict photo I.D. requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration restrictions.

Fifteen states imposed stricter voter I.D. measures; 10 states made it more difficult to vote early or by absentee ballot. Three states made it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.

Where are we today?

The Brennan Center for Justice at Rutgers University keeps a close eye on voter restrictions, and in summary, reports the following:

  • In 2016, these 14 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election: Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
  • In 2017, legislatures in Arkansas and in North Dakota passed voter ID bills, and Missouri implemented a restrictive law passed by ballot initiative in 2016. Texas also passed a new voter ID law, though its earlier strict voter ID law partially was in effect in 2016. Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, and New Hampshire also enacted restrictions last year, in addition to laws on the books for previous elections.
  • In 2018, Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin enacted new restrictions.
  • In 2019, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas did the same.

The data clearly show the growing need for federal supervision of voting rights — though supervision is harder than ever since the Supreme Court removed the teeth from the 1965 law.

America needs a new Voting Rights Act, one that ensures more universal and accessible voting options for all eligible Americans. But how likely is that?

In November 2020, the nation needs all citizens who can vote to vote.  After the election, we can get on with ensuring that all eligible voters, everywhere, have no difficulty casting their votes, anywhere.

Morristown resident Linda Stamato teaches in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and co-direct its Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University. She also writes about topics of interest for

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  1. Connor, closing polling stations anywhere near Indian reservations in Arizona and not allowing ballots to be picked up off the res because a lot of people there do not have the resources to drive to far away polling places is restrictive. Closing polling booths in predominantly black communities in Alabama and not allowing mail-in ballots is restrictive. Voting in this country is becoming a farce as it’s getting more and more geared to keep wealthy white folks in power.

  2. When a president can be elected, not because 0f the number of votes received but the gerrymandering and manipulation of the election process, its time for every citizen to be concerned. When each state has its own system for running elections, with few checks and balances, its time for reform. Bravo, Linda for raising the issue.

  3. In the real world, voter suppression is a thing, voter fraud is not. I’m not doing anyone’s research for them, but it’s not that hard, unless you’re the type of person that yells “fake news” at any fact that might challenge your ignorance.

  4. To FOBNJ, using the New York Times, especially when it provides direct links to sources, that are verifiable, is helpful and the New York Times has held on to its credibility by earning—and deserving—it. I know full well about the political parties during Reconstruction, the poll taxes, the beatings and lynchings, and all that was done to prevent African-Americans from claiming the rights that had—finally—been extended to them. You know very well who constituted those parties and who inherited their position. You remind me of Republicans claiming Abraham Lincoln as a model for their contemporary behavior!

  5. Linda…Offering a NYT article as “evidence” of a problem is a non-starter. When it comes to reporting about politics, they lost all credibility years ago.

    To learn about how awful voter suppression was long ago kindly study what the Democratic party did in southern states during reconstruction. The abuse of black Americans by Southern Democrats, the KKK and others was one of the most shameful times in American history.

  6. “Today’s efforts to reduce voting are rooted more in partisanship than in race. In places like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio, Republican politicians pass voter-ID laws, conduct voter-roll purges and push other measures that drive down turnout among people who lean Democratic — especially black, young and lower-income voters. Laws like these are harder to strike down, even though they should be as intolerable as the poll taxes and literacy tests of the last century.” Take a look at this for more specifics on efforts to limit the Constitutional right to vote:

  7. It would be extremely concerning if legal citizens were not denied the vote due to not voting in the last two elections.

    That being said, I have been directly involved with three campaigns in morristown over the last two cycles and have been a challenger for the two cycles prior to that and I have not witnessed or heard of anyone in this area, at any polling location, being denied the vote due to their voting history or lack there of.

    I would be interested to hear a specific example of this happening in NJ.

    What is concerning, is the law Governor Murphy signed last year directing all County Clerks in the state to issue vote by mail ballots if the individual had requested one at any point over the last two election cycles. These were sent even if the individual did not request one and had not previously informed the county that they no longer required it. Morris county alone sent out over 30k vote by mail ballots this past cycle. This law increased the odds of voters voting more than once. (Not to mention the additional cost of printing and mailing)

    This lead to an above average number of provisional ballots being issued on Election Day, which left poll workers with a difficult situation discerning if an individual received a mail in ballot and required a provisional. (Look at the confusion it caused in Morris Township). Unfortunately, without an official court ordered recount, there is very little way of discerning wether this new law increased integrity of our elections.

    It is imperative that everyone eligible votes in all cycles, but only vote once. If there are scenarios where individuals are being restricted, then all they need to do is request the master poll worker be called to help clarify the situation. I have met a few of them over the years and they are extremely professional with no interest in placing their career in jeopardy to swing a vote or deny a vote in one direction or the other.

  8. How does voter ID undermine the people’s right to vote? One cannot cash a check, buy a pack of cigarettes, drive a car, rent an apartment, or enter a government building without a proper ID? So why is it a bad thing to require a proper ID to vote?

  9. One example is refusing to allow someone to vote who has not voted in the last two elections. Why should someone be prevented from exercising a fundamental right, guaranteed by Constitutional Amendment, simply because he or she did not choose to exercise that vote on a previous occasion. Regrettably there are many more such examples.

  10. I have worked at polling locations in Morris County for many years, and it was common to see voters walk up to the registration tables with their driver’s licenses in their hands as proof of ID. It was also common to meet people who have moved to another town but came back to vote in their former polling place. In those cases, they were told that they can fill out a provisional ballot but they are required to vote in the voting district that they live in. Voter ID is not an unreasonable burden and it helps preserve the integrity of our elections.
    I have also wondered with NJ’s new vote-by-mail law how many former residents will carry their votes with them out of state. How many retired NJ workers who now live out of state (due to lower cost of living) continue to vote in NJ elections? Maybe some enterprising news organization will explore this question.
    And Linda…please stop bashing the GOP as the root of all that is evil.

  11. Voter ID secures our elections. The only people it restricts are those who do not have a legal right to vote. It is virtually impossible to be an adult citizen in this country and not have a government issued ID.

  12. Requiring you to be alive, or here legally, isn’t voter discrimination Linda. Please explain the individual profile of someone who is being restricted. An example

  13. When I shared a draft of this column with a friend, he had the following to say: “Strong and sad piece. You were “kind” not to point out the single party in charge of both the list of states and now (many) of the courts who will rule on the new laws when challenged. There is so much work to do to turn this “Titanic” of a democracy when we can see the iceberg dead ahead….” We all know which party he refers to. It’s understood by many political observers that that one party has chosen to aim for victory by cutting off access to the voting booth while the other party has chosen to broaden and deepen voter access. How does a democracy survive when the people’s right to vote, under the 15th and 19th Amendments to our Constitution, is seriously undermined?