Past generations of Americans defied the odds to achieve the right to participate in the political process — overcoming menacing threats of violence, arrest, and coercion, all to earn the right to vote. As United States citizens, we pride ourselves on living in a country that has become the standard-bearer of democratic values worldwide. But a troubling pattern has taken hold, threatening this distinction for generations to come.
Since 2011, more than 30 states have passed laws that restrict access to citizens’ constitutional right to cast a ballot. These laws disenfranchise eligible youth, minority and first-time voters, marginalizing their voices and collective role in our democracy. In Arizona, the laws are particularly egregious, requiring certain registrants, including first time voters, to provide proof of citizenship in order to simply register to vote. This week, a federal appeals court will hear oral arguments from Arizona officials who argue that the federal government should help them enforce these harsh state laws.
Make no mistake — these laws suppress turnout. Approximately 30,000 Arizonans have been blocked from registering to vote since the state first passed its proof of citizenship law in 2004. Numerous people currently remain on controlled “suspense lists,” which prevent them from voting, because the state claims these individuals have not provided “proper” proof of their citizenship.
Impoverished rural residents born at home without birth certificates and newly naturalized U.S. citizens are among groups that are particularly likely to be blocked from the polls due to the proof of citizenship requirement. Plus, when I went away to college, I didn’t exactly have my birth certificate in hand.
As the president of an organization that advocates for the political power of young people, I am especially concerned about the disproportionate impact these laws have on students, first-time voters, and young Arizonans. A recent analysis by Reuters showed that young people are less likely to carry ID, and studies have estimated that more than 35 percent of 18-year-olds do not have a valid government-issued license. And in Arizona these days, no ID means no ballot at your polling place on Election Day.
Rock the Vote is committed to the belief that it should be easier — not harder — for all Americans to cast a ballot and have their voices heard. We support efforts to reduce voter fraud when methods are proven to strengthen, not weaken, the health of our democracy. That’s why Rock the Vote recently joined other community-registration organizations, including Voto Latino, to sign an amicus brief arguing that proof-of-citizenship voter laws in Arizona and Kansas unduly impair efforts to register new voters. We’ve also organized a “Protect Voting” coalition of over 50 partner organizations including Planned Parenthood Action Fund, GLAAD, and the National Education Association and launched an online petition to raise awareness about these new laws.
Millennials are the largest, most diverse generation in this country’s history, and we want our voices heard. We are this country’s future, and we want to help shape its representational leadership. Old thinking and new laws designed to suppress youth turnout are standing in our way — we hope as some of these issues are re-litigated this week, Arizonans will stand for the future, and not the past.
• Ashley Spillane is president of Rock the Vote.