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EDITORIAL: Voting rights bill a great first step

York Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - In this March 18, 2014 file photo, voters cast their ballots in Hinsdale, Ill. A new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV finds that most Americans ages 15 to 34 think voting in the midterm elections gives their generation some say about how the government runs, and 79 percent of this group say leaders from their generation would do a better job running the country. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

As House Democrats settle into their new majority status, let’s hope the dispute over the next speaker doesn’t cloud their stated first objective, because it is both clear-eyed and necessary: Removing hurdles between voters and the ballot box.

Once the gavel is passed in January, party leaders say, they will move quickly on HR 1, an ambitious bill to tighten governmental ethics laws, reduce the power of money in politics and remove obstacles to voting.

All three measures are important, but that third element is especially vital. For proof, look no further than the run-up to this month’s midterm elections, which saw a slew of antidemocratic efforts throughout the country aimed at making it more difficult for Americans to cast ballots — everything from picayune registration rules to use-it-or-lose-it voter purges.

The Brennan Center for Justice, which monitors barriers to voting, called 2018 the worst year for voter suppression in modern times. Voters in 24 states and the District of Columbia found it more difficult to vote this year than in 2010.

Fortunately, Pennsylvania was not one of them. In fact, the state was cited positively for a Senate bill that would improve access to absentee ballots for voters with disabilities.

Still, there is clearly room for improvement in the Keystone State, which is facing a lawsuit over its absentee ballot deadline requirements. The legal action, whose complainants include a York County resident, argues that the state did not provide absentee ballots in a timely manner, leaving some voters unable to meet the deadline for submitting completed ballots.

And speaking of deadlines, Pennsylvania should move up its voter registration deadline from the current 30 days before Election Day.

Still, these are relatively minor obstacles compared to some of the blatant roadblocks being attempted in states like North Dakota (where a new address provision threatened Reservation-living Native Americans), Kansas (where the one polling station in majority-Hispanic Dodge City — population 27,000 — was moved entirely out of town), and the eight states that have adopted strict Photo ID laws in recent years.

In short, House Democrats can’t act quickly enough. Their proposed first bill would establish automatic voter registration and reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act, which was obliterated by the Supreme Court’s disappointing 5-4 ruling in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case. It would also remove redistricting power from state legislatures and give it to independent commissions.

In other words, it would push back on years of (almost exclusively) Republican efforts to suppress voter participation among minority, young and low-income (read: likely Democratic-leaning) voters. The goal, always: help an overwhelmingly homogeneous party maintain power amid an increasingly diverse electorate.

For that reason, there is little chance the Republican-led Senate, let alone President Trump, will go along with the House. That’s unfortunate, but it’s also telling. And what it should tell voters is how badly change will be needed in those branches of government come 2020.

For now, the House must lead the charge. To be sure, House Democrats — including Pennsylvania’s newly strengthened contingent — will have their hands full. The Trump administration has gone two years without anything resembling accountability, thanks to the current Republican majority’s insistence of providing cover rather than oversight.

Still, while aggressive oversight is essential, it must not be Democrats’ sole priority, nor should it cloud a progressive, positive agenda.

By leading with a series of proposed reforms that would strengthen voting rights, Democrats can display the kind of legislative leadership that has been largely lacking in Washington these past two years. And they can show Americans that — to one party, at least — the Constitutional right to vote should not be contingent on political preference.