In 2018, I won an election no one expected me to win. I became the first Democrat in 40 years to win the 1st Congressional District — a district that voted for Donald Trump by 13 points just two years prior. But in 2020, I lost by 1 percentage point in one of the closest elections in the country. Unlike President Trump and his most fervent allies, I didn’t concoct bizarre conspiracy theories about the validity of the election or attempt to strong-arm election officials into “finding” more votes. I called my opponent, congratulated her, and conceded.
That’s the way it is supposed to work in America. But in today’s divisive and polarized political environment, it seems a politician cannot lose without alleging some sort of voter fraud or irregularities. These dishonest political tactics erode the pillars of our democracy and deliberately mislead the public into believing demonstrable lies. Despite his laughable accusations, the 2020 election was no more stolen from Donald Trump than it was stolen from me. Trump’s debunked claims have now appropriately been dubbed, “The Big Lie,” and led to the infamous insurrection of the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 and resulted in the death of several Capitol Police officers. The danger of degrading our democracy has been put on full display.
Now we are seeing politicians all across the country, in a subtle nod to the “Big Lie,” seek to pass new restrictions on voting.
In Iowa, the Republican governor signed a bill that cuts the state’s early voting period by nine days, closes polls an hour earlier on election day and makes it much more difficult to vote by mail.
In Georgia, in a clear response to Democrats winning two U.S. Senate seats and the presidential election, Republicans passed a 98-page bill that radically curtails ballot access for voters and makes it easier for partisan Republicans in the legislature to overturn elections they — falsely — deem as illegitimate. They even stripped the secretary of state of his authority to oversee elections.
These are just a few examples of the tidal wave of voter suppression that is crashing through Republican legislatures nationwide. Forty-five other states have introduced similar measures to restrict access to the voting booth and make it harder for people — particularly people of color — to cast their vote. It is wrong, unnecessary, and clearly intended to tip the scale for Republicans.
In the face of this disturbing trend, South Carolina should take this opportunity to show that we are different, that we are committed to increasing every voter’s access to the polls.
There are five key steps we can take to make it easier to vote while ensuring the integrity of our elections.
First, we should pass automatic voter registration for every person who turns 18 years old. Rather than requiring them to opt-in, take away the bureaucracy and make them eligible to vote automatically. We do it for military service, why not voting?
We need to follow the lead of our neighbors to the north and 18 other states and allow same-day registration. If an eligible, but unregistered, voter travels to his or her voting location, they should be able to show the appropriate credentials, register and cast their vote.
We should end straight-ticket voting, which only three other states in the country allow. We should be discouraging blind partisanship, not the opposite.
We should also end the unnecessary requirement of needing an excuse to vote early. In South Carolina, voters currently need some sort of approved excuse to vote in-person absentee, such as a work conflict or if they will be out of town on election day. This causes unnecessary widespread confusion when voters should have the ability to vote early if they wish.
Finally, it’s time for South Carolina to end its practice of partisan gerrymandering, where politicians get to draw their own district lines and pick their voters. Gerrymandering encourages partisanship and discourages cooperation. It leads to government dysfunction, gridlock and governing by the extremes.
At a time when voting rights are under assault and conspiracy theories about our elections run rampant, now is the time for the adults in the room to step up and lead our state towards common sense reforms to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.
Joe Cunningham, of Charleston, represented the 1st Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives from 2019-2021.