Ask a Scientist: Defending the Right to Vote

July 7, 2021 | 2:30 pm
Black woman holding up sign at voting rights marchMIchael Fleshman/Flickr
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

This month we’re focusing on the current assault on voting rights across the country. The extent to which state legislatures are trying to make it harder for Americans to vote is breathtaking—and heartbreaking. During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers in 48 states have introduced nearly 400 bills to restrict voting, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, and as of June 21, 17 states have enacted 28 new laws that curtail voting access. There are undoubtedly more to come.

The Union of Concerned Scientists took up this critical issue as a part of its agenda in 2019 when Michael Latner, an associate political science professor at California Polytechnic State University, came on board as our first Kendall voting rights fellow to look at scientific integrity and bias in US voting systems. Since then, we have enlisted the help of full-time staff to address this growing problem, including Taryn MacKinney, who joined the UCS Center for Science and Democracy in 2019 as an investigative researcher after a two-year stint at the National Journal as a senior policy analyst.

In mid-May, MacKinney posted a comprehensive review of four bills pending in Congress that would go a long way to protect voter rights. I wanted to follow up that blog with some questions for her about how the country wound up in this predicament, how the United States stacks up against democracies, how science is intertwined with democracy, and the prospects for those bills on Capitol Hill. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

Taryn MacKinney is an investigative researcher for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she studies the use and misuse of science in policymaking, and leads investigative research with open-records laws.

EN: You’ve spent quite a bit of time burrowing into this issue. Could you remind our readers what spurred state legislators to try to make it more difficult for people to vote?

You’re right that state legislators are cracking down on voting access across the country—slashing early voting, purging voter rolls, and closing polling sites. They are doing so in the name of election security, but these “reforms” are new clothes for old Jim Crow. Rather than make elections safer and fairer, they aim to make voters whiter and wealthier.

Consider photo-identification requirements. On the surface, they might seem benign—doesn’t everybody have a photo ID, like a driver’s license? In fact, millions of people don’t, and Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are less likely than White people to have them. Black voters are also more likely to take advantage of early voting, and in the 2020 elections in Georgia, more Black voters relied on mail-in voting than White voters.

So, these are deliberate, targeted efforts to keep specific groups of people away from the ballot box. Legislators may feign innocence, but they know who these bills will hurt: Black people, young people, urbanites, and other voters of color. That’s the point, really. For these officials, it’s hard to appeal to diverse constituents, and easier to keep them from voting at all.

Of course, it’s appalling. How can officials possibly justify these measures? They certainly don’t have facts on their side. The 2020 election was the most secure in American history, so accusations of fraud are baseless.

What’s left? Lies. By peddling falsehoods—that voter fraud is rampant (it’s not), noncitizens vote in droves (they don’t), and the 2020 election was stolen (it wasn’t)—unethical public officials can rationalize their assaults on free and fair elections.

EN: But doesn’t the Voting Rights Act protect voters from these kinds of draconian laws?

TM: For many decades, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did protect voters. The law required some states—those with histories of discriminatory voting practices—to get federal permission to make changes to their voting laws. This “preclearance” requirement kept jurisdictions from installing new barriers to voting, barriers that usually hobble the rights of Black and Brown voters.

That changed in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act’s beating heart: its preclearance requirement. It was a bald-faced assault on voting protections, and it made no sense. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg worded it well: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes,” she said, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

The impact of that Supreme Court decision was immediate. Since 2013, states have passed dozens of laws that make voting harder, especially for people of color, and this year—as you mentioned—state legislators have proposed hundreds of voting restriction laws.

EN: We saw a huge turnout at the polls in 2020. Even so, isn’t voter turnout in the United States lower than in many other democracies? Wouldn’t that fact prod politicians to encourage voting, not try to suppress it?

TM: We all saw headlines about the high voter turnout in the 2020 presidential elections, and for good reason: Nearly two-thirds of eligible voters in the United States cast ballots, about 7 percent more than in 2016. That’s great news.

But the picture is still somewhat bleak: Even in an election year with historic turnout, the United States lags behind most developed democratic nations. Out of 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the US turnout ranked an embarrassing 24th.

Why is that? A big factor is decentralization. In the United States, elections are managed by states, not the federal government, and each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have 51 different approaches to registering voters, making elections accessible, and the like. That’s a nightmare, and it also enables states to pass laws that undermine voting rights. It’s easy to cast a ballot in my home state of Colorado, for example. But in Georgia? Not so much.

The patchwork of state election practices here stands in stark contrast to those in dozens of other democracies. In Sweden, for example, the federal government registers voters automatically once they become eligible, and the United Kingdom’s government actively seeks out eligible voters to register. And 20-some nations around the world require citizens to vote, as is the case in Australia, which consistently has one of the OECD’s highest rates of voting turnouts. The United States could take a valuable lesson.

EN: How can science be tool for a more functional democratic process?

TM: For democracy to work, there has to be a common understanding of reality. Here’s a silly scenario to illustrate this: Let’s say four people—we’ll call them Jane, Tom, Bill, and Sam—are planning to build a bridge. Jane thinks the river is to the east, but Tom is convinced it’s to the west. Bill, meanwhile, doesn’t know what a bridge is, and Sam doesn’t think there’s any river at all. How well do you think their bridge will turn out? Probably not well, because they didn’t agree on a few basic truths.

Science grounds us in reality by helping us understand cause and effect, what has happened in the past, and what’s to come. That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. We might have different values, and when faced with a problem, we might disagree on how to solve it. If everyone in our silly scenario agrees on the basics—where the river is, for example—they still might disagree on other things, such as whether there ought to be a toll to use the bridge. Indeed, democracies thrive when there is diversity of thought.

But only when we agree on what is true can we elect and hold accountable leaders who will serve the public interest. A truly functioning democracy, in turn, would help us find common ground around these basic truths.

In any case, science must be central to our shared sense of what is true. If the best available science tells us that sea levels are rising, vaccines are safe, and election fraud is negligible, our elected officials ought to embrace this knowledge and use it to make decisions that serve the public good.

EN: You recently catalogued the key provisions of four bills pending in Congress. What are the current prospects for those bills?

TM: The Fair Representation Act, which would reform winner-take-all elections, is still in its infancy. It was introduced only a few weeks ago. The D.C. Admission Act, which would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state, saw a flurry of activity around the same time: the Senate held a hearing on the bill on June 22, only the second time the Senate has debated D.C. statehood. As a reminder, residents of D.C. have no representation in the Senate, despite the fact that more people live in D.C. than live in Wyoming or Vermont.

Meanwhile, the biggest and boldest of the four bills, the For the People Act, or H.R. 1, faces an uphill battle. It recently failed in the Senate on a 50-50 vote, with Republicans unanimously denying Democrats the 60 votes needed to begin debate.

The prospects are about the same for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement. The bill easily cleared the House but lurched to a stop in the Senate. Senate Democrats support it, but they’re joined by only one Republican, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Bill supporters will have to scrounge up another nine GOP backers—a tall, if not impossible, order.

The issue here is the filibuster. The Senate cloture rule, or filibuster, requires support by 60 senators for a bill to move to a vote. Senators rarely resorted to mounting a filibuster for most of its history, but in the last few decades, they have been wielding it like a battering ram, crushing any bill that doesn’t get 60 votes. That leaves the minority party with outsized control and very little interest in representing public sentiment.

But failure is not an option. Without a functioning democracy, none of our other hopes—for health, safety, clean air and water, good jobs, education, a stable climate—are possible. We can’t give up hope, and we can’t stop fighting.

EN: Regardless of what happens with those bills, what can UCS supporters do to protect voter rights?

TM: First, I’d recommend that everyone study up. Learn all you can about how our democracy is under assault, and why we need reform now more than ever. Then spread the word. Have your friends and relatives heard about the Fair Representation Act, or H.R. 1? If not, talk to them.

Second, we have to turn up the heat on Congress. The House has already done its job to make these bills law, but the Senate is dragging its feet. Tell your senators today that their constituents want action on democracy reform, and that the public expects Congress to prioritize science-based electoral change. Remember, your senators work for you.

Third, you can join us. We want to build a democracy that protects the right to vote, holds our leaders accountable, and champions science as a tool for the public good. Our website has a lot of great information about how to do that, so click here for more information.

About the author

More from Elliott

Elliott writes about UCS-related topics for a range of news organizations. Prior to joining UCS, Elliott was the Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.