We were college roommates, our lives then taking one to Maine, the other to Texas. We now find ourselves with markedly different voting rights. Texas and Maine illustrate the wide disparity in voting rights across the U.S. that has created two classes of voters. Texans have second-class rights, while Mainers’ are first class.

The new election laws in Texas limit counties’ ability to expand voting options, as Houston’s Harris County did in 2020. Harris County enabled 24-hour voting for one day as well as drive-through voting at several polling places. These options were especially popular among people of color and people with disabilities. Now drive-through voting is banned.

The new law adds to Texas’ already onerous voting identification requirements. The state allows handgun licenses as an acceptable form of identification but not student IDs. It also unusually restricts mail-in voting. In 2020, Harris County proactively sent applications to all 2.4 million registered voters, instructing them how to determine their eligibility to vote by mail. Now, distributing unsolicited applications to request a mail-in ballot is a felony.

Texas has strengthened the autonomy of partisan poll watchers by granting them “free movement” within a polling place. It is a criminal offense to obstruct the watchers themselves. The only limitation is they cannot be present at a voting station when a voter is filling out their ballot. Democrats were able to stipulate that poll watchers can be removed without warning if they violate the state penal code.

Over 2,000 miles to the northeast, Maine has a long tradition of holding inclusive, secure, high-turnout elections. Mainers are rightly proud of their state’s voting rights history. Maine voters benefit from same-day registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and the use of paper ballots to verify vote tallies. The Maine Legislature further strengthened and expanded voting rights earlier this year. These reforms permit Mainers to register online, expand the use of 24-hour drop boxes for absentee ballots, confirm that student IDs can be used to register to vote, and allow voters with disabilities and voters over 65 to sign up to receive absentee ballots for every election.

Maine’s already-high voter turnout increased to 78% of eligible voters during the pandemic by providing more ways to cast a ballot. As noted by the Portland Press Herald editorial board, this turnout rate did “not convey a partisan advantage” last year: Maine voters picked two Democratic members of Congress and kept Republican Sen. Susan Collins in office. Voters split the state’s two congressional districts between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump.

But even Maine’s laws would be improved by the For the People Act, legislation that has been filibustered by Senate Republicans, including Sen. Collins. This anti-corruption bill would protect our elections from interference, eliminate partisan gerrymandering and dark money influence (in both parties), and outlaw voter suppression. Sen. Collins has tightly aligned herself with her party on refusing consideration of all voting rights legislation, even though she benefits from expanded voting rights in Maine and values her own 8,000-plus roll call  votes in the U.S. Senate since January 1997. She and her fellow Senate Republicans refuse to even discuss the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act or the For the People Act.

In October Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King summarized the peril we face as a nation when he asked, “What if the current wave of voter suppression legislation succeeds and keeps tens of thousands of people from voting; or what if in 2024 a partisan legislature in a swing state votes to override the election results and send its own set of electors to Congress? Then it won’t just be Republicans who distrust elections; and we will be left with a downward spiral toward a hollow shell of democracy, where only raw power prevails and its peaceful transfer becomes a distant memory.”

The right to vote is our core right as Americans, upon which all other rights depend. Republicans in many states besides Texas are severely curtailing citizens’ ability to exercise this right, making these states and the voters within them separate and unequal.

Passage of national voting rights legislation that establishes core standards for all states is essential if we are to preserve our freedoms. All Americans should have first-class voting rights. Increasingly, we don’t.

Leila Levinson and Jennifer Kierstead, former roommates at Vassar College, are writers based in Austin, Texas, and Waterville, respectively. Levinson is the author of “Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma.”


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