Voter Suppression, Disenfranchisement and Civil Rights
During the debates, we’ve discussed Libya, the economy, and women’s rights. But what we haven’t discussed is the battle over voter suppression–one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time. Another scandal relating to voter registrations has cropped up, this time in Harrisonburg, VA. Colin Small, 31, allegedly trashed eight voter registration forms on Virginia’s last day of registration for the Nov. 6 election. Small was contracted as a voter registration supervisor for the Virginia state Republican Party, and has since been fired. Small has been charged with “disclosure of voter registration applications, a felony.”
Given that voter registration forms often have vital personal information – Social Security number, address, date of birth – it is extremely irresponsible to leave such forms where they might have been found and used for ill purposes. Not only that, but trashing the forms is entirely undemocratic and shows an unfortunate lack of integrity. Voting is a constitutional right and as such it is not only unconstitutional to attempt to abridge this right, it is downright immoral. This is not a problem confined to one man and one incident. Most voter suppression is taking the form of voter ID laws–ironically pushed in order to prevent fraud.
In the United States, we take the right to vote for granted. It’s the foundation of our government, and the foundation of the participatory democracy we believe should be spread across the globe. What we call the American Dream is one of prosperity and middle-class comfort, but there’s a political American dream too–voting.
Today, we take for granted the idea that every American citizen has the right to vote, but that has been a long and contentious road. We used to base voting on whether or not someone was a white male with property, or enough wealth that it could be taxed. (No taxation without representation seemed to mean no representation without taxation.) A vital part of the Jim Crow laws were the poll taxes and literacy tests–aimed towards keeping blacks disenfranchised, and therefore, powerless. These practices were ended by the 1964 passage of the 24th Amendment, which prohibited basing voting rights on the ability to pay a tax. Women, too, fought hard to get the right to vote–with suffragettes like Alice Paul being taken to jail for picketing the White House, ostensibly due to ‘blocking traffic.’
We base our entire ideology on this idea that everyone has a vote. We claim that we work overseas to spread our system of democracy. So we couldn’t possibly have a threat to that very democracy right here at home, right? And yet, we do. Civil Rights icon John Lewis–who still bears scars from being beaten during his struggle against racial inequality–addressed the issue at the Democratic National Convention.
My dear friends, your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union. Not too long ago, people stood in unmovable lines. They had to pass a so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. On another occasion, one was asked to count the jelly beans in a jar—all to keep them from casting their ballots.
Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting. They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote. The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House even bragged that his state’s new voter ID law is “gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.” That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not just.
And similar efforts have been made in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina. I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.
It’s undeniable that there has been a growing trend towards placing legal limitations on the right to vote. It’s also undeniable that this comes from the GOP. Several lawmakers, out of an unjustified fear of fraud, have been attempting to pass laws that require voters to present photo identification. Since the 2010 midterm elections, in which Republicans regained control of Congress, voter ID laws have become a contentious issue. Legislation to enact Voter ID laws was introduced in 20 states in 2011. Of the 27 states that have existing voter ID laws, 14 saw attempts to enact stronger ID laws (i.e. requiring a photo ID.) Many more have been introduced in 2012. As of August 2012, there have been 62 bills introduced in 37 states. These laws have come in response to allegations of widespread voter fraud. This simply isn’t the case–and more to the point, in a system that still has so far to go in order to enfranchise everyone, we simply cannot accept any steps backward.
But what about individual voter fraud? That’s bad, right? Why shouldn’t we try to prevent it? Because it’s almost nonexistent, and is completely insignificant. Most of the incidents that supporters of voter ID laws point to are simple cases of misunderstanding. Individual voter fraud–the only kind these ID laws could possibly prevent–is very rare. What is more common is suppression such as partisan election workers such as Small destroying forms, or ballot boxes disappearing and reappearing, or misinformation being spread. One example: In 2010, during the Maryland gubernatorial race, over 100,000 people received a controversial robocall that informed voters that Martin O’Malley, the Democratic incumbent, had already won–before the polls even closed. ID laws do nothing about this. Election tampering like this is treated as what it is–a crime.
Besides the ideological point–that the right to vote in this country cannot be dependent on having the proper form of identification–there are a myriad of practical concerns. This is a highly partisan issue, with Republicans being the driving force behind the passage of these laws while Democrats are opposed to it. The link between the 2010 midterm elections and these laws is more than correlation–the two are cause and effect. Of those 62 bills introduced since the 2010 midterms, over half were sponsored by legislators who have ties to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. (The ALEC claims to be a federalist, conservative, nonpartisan group. However, one of their major initiatives is to “expose” and “fight back” against Obamacare.)
Why is it beneficial for Republican lawmakers to pass stringent voting laws? The answer seems to lie in demographic data. The Brennan Center for Justice (a group run from the New York University School of Law) estimates that 11% of the eligible voter population does not have identification. In addition, the Brennan Center claims that even if free ID is available, there are significant roadblocks. More than 10 million eligible voters would need to travel over 10 miles to a state ID-issuing office. In addition, obtaining the necessary documents–birth certificates, marriage licenses–costs money. The people who are most likely to have a problem with transportation or access to documents are people of color, working-class people, and the elderly–all groups that traditionally skew Democratic.
Pennsylvania–an influential swing state in national elections–is one of the states where a controversial voter ID law was introduced in this pivotal election year. In June, Republican Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said, addressing the Republican State Committee meeting: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” There is no question that such laws are politically motivated.
In deciding the fate of the Voter ID Law, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania called for more hearings to determine whether the State has the logistical ability to provide valid IDs to all eligible voters who would need one to vote this November. The courts made their final decision earlier this month, halting the law based on the ruling that the State would not be able to provide IDs to all voters who needed one in time for November’s election. While the law has been halted for this year’s election, there is no question it will be back on the Pennsylvania Republican’s agenda in 2013. The Voter ID Law was struck down for logistical reasons, but the ideology behind such restrictions still remains.
On the NYTimes’ 538 blog, Nate Silver has done a statistical analysis of just how these new laws can affect the 2012 election. His approach is carefully measured and non-sensationalist, taking into account that not all eligible voters turn out. Though his conclusion is that the effects of the laws will be minor and easily countered, the numbers show that these laws do favor Republicans.
The Republicans answer that this is merely a correction, bringing the numbers back to truly reflect the populace as individual (liberal/Democratic) voter fraud is routed out. However, again, simply put–we don’t have a problem with individual voter fraud in this country. Individual voters don’t deliberately try to vote multiple times, or vote as other people.
But the real damage may be done in the legal sphere. All of this legislation has prompted legal battles in a dozen courts, who have recently made decisions that often conflict. This leaves close races in 2012 open to legal challenges that could drag on.
Meanwhile, voter suppression continues to exist. In Arizona, some Spanish-language voter ID cards had the wrong date for Election Day. (The Election Department claimed that the error was small and few people saw it, but many aren’t so sure it won’t take a lot of work to be sure that the Spanish-speaking population of Arizona is aware of the correct date. Arizona has been the epicenter of the immigration debate recently, due to its controversial laws.) Billboards designed to scare people about the possibility of committing voter fraud (remember, an individual is more likely to be hit by lightning than commit individual, intentional, prosecutable voter fraud) have appeared in predominantly minority neighborhoods in Cleveland. If we are merely concerned with a fair and just election, why do these appear in minority neighborhoods? Why is the date wrong on the Spanish-language card? (Is a pattern beginning to emerge?) Current legal battles in the Supreme Court have the potential to suppress even more voters in the future.
When it comes to laws, we need to look at the net gain for society versus the net harm. In some cases, it can be hard to balance the two. When it comes to voter ID laws, the net harm far outweighs the net gain. We need to focus on institutional voter suppression, not individual voter fraud–and by framing the debate as a problem of individual voter fraud, we are cementing the institutional voter suppression. Enfranchisement is the goal. We must continue to enfranchise people.
Written by Jess Mary Aloe (follow her on Twitter), Brenna McCaffrey, and Savannah Thomas
Opinions expressed in our editorials belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of Feminspire or its staff as a whole.
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