© Josh Sager – September 2012
Americans like to think that one of the guiding principles of the United States of America is that the government is elected for the people and by the people. In line with this ideal, every American citizen, regardless of social station, education, or means, is supposed to get one vote with which to weigh into the selection of political representation—a millionaire’s vote has the same value as a homeless person’s. Politicians are elected to serve the good of the people that they represent and are held accountable through elections. Because voting is such a vital component of our democracy, it is important that eh voting process not be corrupted by those in power.
Unfortunately, the practical application of the USA’s voting laws has failed to live up to our lofty ideal, both in history and today. For as long as the USA has existed, there have been those who want to limit the voting franchise in order to push an agenda or discriminate against a less powerful group. Some political groups have attempted to control the government, not by bringing other people to their side, but by simply preventing groups who are likely to disagree with them from ever being allowed into the voting process.
Historically, the United States voting system has not been implemented in a way which is equitable to women and racial minorities. Women, Native Americans and African Americans were unable to vote under the law for most of the early years of our country. Not until the 1920 were women allowed to vote in federal elections (state election laws were decided on an individual basis). Even after the civil war and the passing of the 15th Amendment, states would discriminate against African Americans through “poll taxes” or “literacy tests” as a method of keeping them from affecting society. What most of us would like to think is that today, we have evolved past such discriminatory and immoral means of operating our elections, but recent events have shed doubt on this hope.
While we like to think that our country’s days of voter disenfranchisement are long gone, recent years have seen a massive resurgence in the effort to limit voting privileges on both the state and federal levels. Several major types of voter disenfranchisement laws that have gained prevalence in this new round of voter suppression:
Voter Disenfranchisement through Legislation
1) Voter Identification Requirements
By requiring a type of identification not usually held by certain demographics, politicians can disenfranchise specific groups of voters. While legally allowed to vote, those without ID are not allowed to cast ballots, thus they are functionally unable to exercise their right to vote. Members of different demographic groups have different likelihoods of carrying different types of identification. For example: young voters living in an urban environment are far less likely to carry driver’s licenses than middle-aged voters living in the suburbs. By identifying the types of identification that are statistically more likely to be carried by friendly demographics and less likely to be carried by unfriendly demographics, politicians can game the voter-ID requirements to benefit their own party.
Many will claim that these identification requirements are fair because they don’t discriminate overtly, and necessary due to voter fraud; both of these assertions are demonstrably false, and nothing more than the excuse to rig the election. Voter ID laws are created in order to make it more difficult for certain people to vote, and the types of ID which are required are chosen accordingly. Just as with the old “poll taxes”, the fact that everybody is asked for the same thing doesn’t mean that the laws aren’t discriminatory.
While those who support voter ID laws claim to be attempting to stop a massive epidemic of voter fraud, there is no evidence to back this up. Despite extensive investigations into the potential for voter fraud by government agencies and political organizations, very few cases have been confirmed and even fewer people have been convicted. At the very least, there aren’t enough cases of voter fraud to rationally justify the implementation of laws which illegally disenfranchise large portions of the population (ex. the PA voter ID law—which was blocked by the judiciary—was estimated to disenfranchise 10% of the state).
Recent pieces of legislation have been passed in conservative legislatures which are aimed at forcing every voter to show ID at the polls. In most cases, the required ID is a government issued photo ID (ex. passport, driver’s license, etc.). Unfortunately, these laws have been going into effect only months away from the 2012 presidential election, thus it is essentially impossible for every legal voter to get their ID in time for the election (the states simply couldn’t handle the workload).
Conservatives have enacted these strict voter ID laws because the groups who are likely to be disenfranchised by such laws include students, urban residents, racial minorities, and the poor—all of which are Democratic-leaning demographics. It is less common for these demographics to have a driver’s license or passport than many conservative demographics (ex. working-class white males), thus these restrictions are able to disproportionately restrict Democratic voters over Republican voters.
As an interesting note: Student IDs, even from state colleges, are not allowed as a form of voter ID, yet a gun permit is—this is because students tend to vote liberally, while gun-owners tend to vote conservatively.
2) Restricting the time and locations of voting
Some legislators utilize the tactic of selectively reducing the times and places where citizens can legally vote in order to shrink the voting population. If fewer people are able to vote, or voting becomes too inconvenient for many people, then the voting pool can be shrunk without any overt disenfranchisement.
Through the closing of voting locations, or the under-supplying of selected locations with voting stations, partisan officials can significantly affect the vote. A lack of functioning voting machines in a voting district often leads to huge lines and sometimes even the complete shutdown of the polling place. Officials who wish to manipulate the vote through the allocation of resources simply under-supply the districts which are likely to vote against their candidate; this allows them to keep up the pretense of a fair election, but to weight the vote in favor of their interests.
As voting day is not a holiday in the United States, long wait times at the polls are particularly damaging to poor workers who are unable to get significant amounts of time off. Long lines at the voting booth act as a de-facto poll tax, and those who are unable to leave their jobs for long periods of time, if not take the day off, bear the brunt of this disenfranchisement.
In addition to selectively manipulating voting resources in districts, politicians can manipulate early voting hours in order to reduce certain populations’ ability to vote. The poor, disabled, and elderly find early voting to be extremely advantageous, as early voting reduces the amount of time and effort that must be put into voting. Elderly and disabled Americans, who would be physically unable to wait for hours at the polls, find it far easier to exercise their right to vote when they are allowed to utilize early voting. Poor Americans often find early voting advantageous because it allows them to vote during the weekend, thus avoiding the loss of a full day’s work that would have resulted from waiting at the polls on election day.
Some African American churches have adopted the effective and socially beneficial practice of organizing voting drives during the Sunday before elections (souls to the polls); this practice is both highly laudable, and extremely good at getting those who would otherwise be unable to vote to the polls. Through their prominent connection to their community, these churches are able to organize large numbers of African American voters (most of whom support Democrats) to vote. If early voting is not available, efforts by these groups to organize voting drives—such as those by African American churches—are not possible.
By reducing early voting and absentee voting in the months before the 2012 election, conservative politicians have attempted to reduce the minority, poor and elderly populations which vote in the next election. Mike Turzai, the Republican House majority leader of Pennsylvania, described the true goals of the voter identification movement perfectly when he said: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” Most politicians aren’t as honest (or simply loose-lipped) as Rep. Turzai, but it is virtually inarguable that the primary motivations for voter ID laws are based in voter suppression.
3) Attacking voter registration
Politicians are able to attack the funding and increase the regulations limiting voting registration organizations in an attempt to rig the vote. By attacking the organizations which register demographics that tend to support their opponents, politicians are able to reduce the total number of voters who are likely to vote for their opponents. This manner of voter disenfranchisement is extremely subversive, as it prevents people from even having the ability to vote, rather than stopping them when they try to vote.
Recent attacks on voter registration organizations include: limiting the time for forms to be passed in, increasing fines levied against these organization, and attacking the funding of voter registration organizations.
As we saw with the organization Acorn, these tactics are often very effective and can result in the defunding and disassembling of entire voter registration organizations. While the demise of Acorn is the most well-known case of this type of attack on voting, it is not a unique situation. The passage of new restrictions during 2011 essentially destroyed the voter registration organizations of the state of Florida, and has led to a near-complete cessation of organized voter registration within the state.
Through destroying voter registration organizations, particularly ones targeting minorities and young students, conservatives have attempted to reduce the number of registered voter who are likely to vote democratic. Functionally speaking, reducing the number of registered voters is identical to obstructing them at the polls or purging them from the rolls, thus attacking voter registration organizations is as effective as directly disenfranchising voters at the polls.
4) “Voter purges”
Voter purges are used by some politicians to disenfranchise large numbers of voters who tend not to vote for them. By fabricating a reason to take these voters off of the voter registration lists—often by claiming that they have moved or are legally unable to vote—it is possible for politicians to complicate the voting process for those who are unlikely to support them. At a minimum, voter purges require citizens to prove their ability to vote, thus making the process of voting more time consuming and difficult to achieve. In a worst case scenario, the purged voter is unable to prove their ability to vote in time, or simply doesn’t know how to do so, and becomes disenfranchised.
These voter purges are the most direct form of voter suppression that we have seen since the days of Jim Crow: voters are simply taken off of the voting rolls and are explicitly denied the franchise. The most egregious examples such modern partisan voter purges can be found in the state of Florida during the lead ups to the 2000 and 2012 elections: In both cases, the Republican legislature enacted stringent voter purges targeted at democratic leaning demographics—purging “suspected felons”, most of whom where African American, in 2000 and “suspected illegal residents”, most of whom are Hispanic, in 2012.
5) Barring Felons from Voting
One of the most overlooked, but extremely dangerous, forms of voter disenfranchisement is that of barring convicted felons from being allowed to vote. In many states, the legislature or governor’s office has the power to deny felons the ability to vote—a power which allows partisan politicians to be able to manipulate the vote.
Many people overlook this form of disenfranchisement because it targets those who have the stigma of a criminal record, but they fail to see the bigger picture. Our criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to the “war on drugs”, does not treat everybody equally, thus some demographics are more likely to be disenfranchised due to a felony record. Poor Americans and racial minorities are statistically more likely than wealthy or middle-class caucasians to be arrested and charged with a crime; in addition to this, even in cases where more-privileged demographics are arrested, they are more likely to receive a lesser sentence (ex. dropping a felony down to a misdemeanor). When felons are barred from voting, it is inevitable that the structural inequalities of the criminal justice system will be translated into the voting franchise.