Why the Attack on Voting Rights Threatens Our Regulatory System

Clarissa Libertelli

Sept. 22, 2021

Amid the latest wave of voter suppression laws across the nation, Senate Democrats last week unveiled new voting rights legislation.

This legislation aims to safeguard the voting rights of millions of Americans. Ensuring access to the ballot for all eligible citizens is, of course, crucial to the health and integrity of American democracy. More than that, though, it is an essential precondition for the effective functioning of our regulatory system. Put simply: When voters’ voices are suppressed, lawmakers and agency officials may be less responsive to their needs — and more likely to favor those of corporations and other special interests. 

Public support for regulations

Corporations often fight any regulations that threaten to restrict their profits; the general public, however, strongly supports protective regulations across the political spectrum. 

This is true even of issues that provoke sharp disagreements among elected officials. When it comes to addressing pollution and climate change, for example, more assertive regulations are broadly popular with voters across the ideological spectrum, according to a 2021 poll by the Center for Progressive Reform and Data for Progress. 

Because voters overwhelmingly favor protective regulations, more voting means a stronger regulatory system.

History bears this out. 

The 1960s and ‘70s saw a huge expansion in access to voting among the American public: The 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished poll taxes, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned a wide variety of racially discriminatory voting practices (in Mississippi, for instance, Black voting registration increased from under 7 percent in 1965 to nearly 60 percent in 1969). 

It was also one of the most active periods of public interest legislation in American history: Congress enacted visionary measures providing for occupational safety and health, the environment, consumer protection, and civil rights laws. 

But these measures were not self-executing. Just as regulations are only as good as the legislation that authorizes them, legislation is only as effective as the regulations that implement and enforce it. These early public interest statutes were designed as regulatory frameworks that evolve and grow to meet new and emerging threats to the public interest.

Voting rights and regulations decline hand-in-hand 

Voting rights have been on a steady downturn since 2010 when Citizens United reversed long-standing restrictions on campaign donations, in effect handing more political influence to wealthy donors and corporations. Three years later, in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court further threw our electoral system out of balance by gutting the 1965 Civil Rights Act, clearing the way for the recent spate of state voter suppression laws.  

In the decade since, public interest legislation has ground nearly to a standstill. The clearest example of Congress’s abdication of responsibility is the existential threat posed by climate change. While the regulatory framework created by older laws like the Clean Air Act still provides a viable pathway for taking on this policy challenge, climate-specific legislation would lay the groundwork for more effective and efficient regulation.

Meanwhile, it appears that conservative lawmakers have turned to actively restricting voter access in order to maintain their grip on political power, even as they pursue a policy agenda that is deeply unpopular with their constituents.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott de-regulated his state’s power grid, which led to disaster last winter. This month, he signed a controversial voting restrictions law that may insulate him from backlash at the voting booth next fall. The bottom line: Restricted voter access now means that conservatives like Abbott have no obligation to work toward stronger regulatory protections or other broadly popular policies. 

Abbott’s law is only one of over 30 voting restriction laws enacted this year alone, and more than 300 bills that would restrict voting are pending in 49 states. These new laws make voting more difficult and exclusive by, among other things, increasing the likelihood legitimate voters will be purged from voting lists, making mail-in and early voting more difficult, and toughening voter ID requirements.

Targeting people of color

Consistent with America’s long history of voter suppression, this legislation will disproportionately impact Black and brown voters. The U.S. Department of Justice, in fact, is suing Georgia over its controversial changes to elections law on the grounds that the changes target Democratic voters and people of color. 

When people of color are targets of voter suppression, the results are especially pernicious for federal regulatory protections. Polling consistently shows that members of marginalized communities tend to be the strongest supporters of regulations. The exclusion of their voices thus has a particularly distorting effect. Given that members of these communities also bear a disproportionate brunt of unregulated hazards, their exclusion from voting further amplifies injustice. 

Advocates raising the alarm about voter suppression often focus on its potential consequences for our electoral system: weakened democracy, extremist candidates, political corruption. We need to go further and make the connection between voter suppression and a functioning government. 

The American public recognizes that our regulatory system keeps us safe. Its ability to meet future challenges is in peril if voters are not able to bring this recognition to bear in the voting booth. Worse still, the systematic exclusion of many voters, particularly those from marginalized communities, could lead to the election of more lawmakers who are willing and able to actively dismantle the regulatory system without fear of future electoral reprisal.

We cannot have healthy, thriving communities without an effective regulatory system that works for all people. And we cannot have an effective regulatory system without a healthy, thriving democracy. Even as we work to strengthen protections for our people, our economy, and our planet, we must also fight voter restrictions and secure access to voting for all. The two challenges are inextricably intertwined.  

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