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Empowering Americans Through the Ballot Box

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Nicole Austin-Hillery

Nicole Austin-Hillery

Our democracy is strongest when its citizens are empowered to have a voice in what kind of country they live in and how it is governed. That empowerment starts with the vote. No matter how we differ in terms of race, gender, wealth or any of the other classifications that divide us, on Election Day we are all equal.

We need to further empower our citizens by ensuring fair, equitable and unencumbered access to the ballot box. But there are many problems with our election system, and we need solutions.

We need to make it easier for eligible Americans to vote. So, we need to modernize our antiquated voting system. We live in a digital age, but when it comes to voting and voter registration, we are stuck in the 19th century. This leads to a host of problems that discourage voters from voting — particularly long lines. As I said on election night: “We have to fix that.”

We need a modern voter registration system that includes automatic and same-day voter registration. Such a system should allow voters to register or update their registration online or at the polls, and it would bring new voters into the system, empowering even more Americans to have a say in how our democracy is run.

Second, we need to provide more opportunities for early voting and we need to create minimum national voting standards. We also need to provide appropriate training for poll workers who help voters on Election Day. Taken together, these measures would level the voting playing field, and ensure that no American has to choose between waiting in line for hours to cast a ballot and going to work or spending time with his or her family.

Finally, we need to extend the franchise to those who are currently disenfranchised. When an American who committed a crime has paid his or her debt to society, his or her right to vote should be restored. As it stands now, we disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown, and prevent them from participating meaningfully in our democracy. Allowing the formerly incarcerated to vote would both strengthen our democracy and help to close the racial and class divides that our nation grapples with even in the 21st century. And, it’s just the right thing to do.

If we take these three steps, we can ensure that more Americans than ever before are able to take part in shaping what kind of nation we have and how we live in it. That participation is the core of any great democracy.

Nicole Austin-Hillery is the first Director and Counsel of The Brennan Center’s Washington, DC office which she opened in March 2008. In her role, Ms. Austin-Hillery oversees D.C. office operations, serves as the chief advocate for the Brennan Center on a host of justice and democracy issues and coordinates work with other civil rights, social justice and democracy organizations in D.C. Ms. Austin-Hillery is the organization’s chief liaison to Congress and the Administration.

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