A Voting Rights Act for the 21st Century

by Kathleen Yang-Clayton, Deputy Director

America in 2015 looks very different than America in 1965. While I am very moved by President Obama’s call to “restore” the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I believe we really need a VRA for the 21st Century to better reflect our multi-cultural and multi-lingual nation that exists in 2015. Across the country, we see the persistent attacks on our right to vote. Instead of fighting a defensive battle, this is the time to look into the future and share a vision of how we engage with our democracy that inspires people to participate. We could start with reliable and clear voter registration updates, more Early Voting sites and dates, “no fault” Vote-by-Mail options, in-language ballots  for any limited-English proficient citizen and more multi-lingual and cultural Election Judges.

The Asian American community is made up of people who might have just recently become naturalized citizens, while others might be third or fourth generation Americans. Our community can trace its origins to over 20 countries, and in Illinois alone our members speak 25 different languages. This diversity extends beyond Asian Americans, to recent immigrants from Poland, numerous African nations, as well as others, and systems must be designed to lower barriers and encourage participation. For example, even if we were to “restore” the 1965 VRA, language assistance would still not be available for recent citizens who have immigrated from nations in Africa, or for people from Poland, because of the wording of the current laws.

In Illinois, Advancing Justice | Chicago has pushed for ballots to be translated into languages beyond the current VRA requirements. We have also led recruitment for bilingual Election Judges to ensure that limited-English proficient voters can seek language assistance and see a familiar face as part of the democratic system that they are attempting to access.

Statewide, we have played a crucial role in the passing and implementing the Election Day registration pilot program that was made permanent after thousands of citizens in our state used the option when they found themselves at their poll sites but could not be found on the rolls.  This didn’t only lower barriers for Asian Americans, or immigrants, or Democrats, but also for long-time residents who were out in the suburbs, Republicans, seniors and busy professionals. On Election Day last November, I traveled across the greater Chicago area from Northbrook to the West Side Learning Center and in-between to record and interview those who were in line waiting to use Election Day registration.  Over and over, I heard similar stories that their names had not been on the list, and they had thought by updating their driver’s license that their voter registration would be updated.  Very rarely did I encounter a story of a “lazy” voter who just didn’t take the time to register.  At Welles Park in Chicago, lines lasted until the early morning hours of people who wanted to cast their ballot.

Along with economic and social justice, there is nothing more important than defending the fairness and transparency of our election systems. I argue that a new Voting Rights Act, one that protects the more diverse America of 2015, and one that reinvigorates our nation’s commitment to a fair, free, and transparent democratic process in the 21st century, is what is needed.

Kathleen Yang-Clayton is the Deputy Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @AsianPolicyNerd