The Uproar

How Democracy Dies

The insidious campaign to prevent voting in America

Roshie Xing, Contributing Author

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The United States has been a true democracy for at most just over fifty years, a reality running counter to the tales we’ve been told of our freedom-heavy, egalitarian way of governance longevity. Only since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which stopped local and state governments from passing laws denying American citizens the right to vote based on race, has there been even nominal universal suffrage in America. Arguably, the United States’ pursuit of democracy has only ever been just a pursuit, for in the purest sense of the word, a democracy is a system of governance in which all the non-incarcerated members of a society are able to have their voices heard in their representative government, primarily through voting. Since the founding of this nation, there have always been groups who have been inhibited from voting, either legally or logistically, from women to African Americans to Native Americans. And, perhaps unbeknownst to the 42% of eligible voters who shirked their civic responsibility to vote in 2016, taking that right for granted, there continue to be many groups whose voices are quashed by meticulously targeted voter suppression campaigns and who continue to struggle for the fulfillment of their right to vote.

In 1970, amidst continued governmental efforts to make voting as difficult as possible for certain groups (a notion antithetical to democracy), the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was formed in part to register and engage voters, particularly young and working-class voters. In October 2008, presidential candidate John McCain began accusing ACORN of facilitating voter fraud (which cable news breathlessly covered), an accusation that didn’t hold up under investigation but that remained in conservative media. The next year, right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe (disgraced after attempting to “sting” the Washington Post on its investigations into claims of sexual assault and pedophilia against Roy Moore) released undercover videos on Breitbart News that seemed to show ACORN employees offering him dodge tax payments; several criminal investigations resulted in no charges. In 2009, the House Judiciary Committee released evidence that the Bush administration had fired prosecutors who refused to file baseless voter fraud charges against ACORN, a politically motivated actions. These accusations, some meritless and others more merited (though never linked to voter fraud), gradually chipped away ACORN’s ability to register voters until a leading organization working to enfranchise Americans lost nearly all of its power and the phantom of “voter fraud” was taken up by savvy politicians to delegitimize elections and justify disenfranchisement.

In 2013, the Supreme Court further issued a setback to voting rights advocates by invalidating a key part of the Voting Rights Act in the case Shelby County v. Holder. They negated the requirement forcing jurisdictions with a history of discrimination attempting to move forward with potentially discriminatory voting rule changes to first gain federal approval. Local and state governments have taken this as a green light for blatant voter suppression, generally against Democratic-leaning constituencies. Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate, has disenfranchised thousands of Kansans though his “voter fraud” fantasies have been rejected in federal court as, well, a fraud. He was, as you might remember, the head of President Trump’s ill-fated committee on voter fraud that was soon disbanded after accusations of acting as a thinly-veiled attempt to suppress voting and the determination that voter fraud is simply not an issue in the US. In Dodge City, Kansas, there is only one polling place for 27,000 people in a Latino-majority town, a polling place that was recently moved a mile from any public transportation for the midterms. When the ACLU sent a letter of complaint, an election administrator forwarded it to state officials with the message “LOL.” How cute, that the suppression of thousands of votes could be distilled to such a trite response. Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate has currently 53,000 voter registrations on hold under his state’s “exact match” policy, with 70% of those ballots belonging to African Americans (Georgia is 32% black, and Kemp’s opponent, Stacey Abrams, is African American). The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled this policy illegitimate. Kemp has also been recorded saying that he is concerned by “everybody using and exercising their right to vote.” In an 11th hour move, he accused Democrats Sunday of attempting to hack into Georgia’s online voter database, an unsubstantiated claim that came up after the Georgia Democratic Party’s election security workers warned his office of system vulnerabilities. Kemp has since begun an investigation into the state Democratic party. Neither Kemp nor Kobach have recused themselves from their current role. State secretaries of state are in charge of overseeing voter registration, so their lack of recusal is akin to a student grading his or her own test. Which, now that I think about it, isn’t such a bad policy after all… In North Dakota, the Supreme Court upheld a law forcing voters to have a residential street address, directly targeting the Native Americans who provided who live on reservations with a P.O. box. They provided Democrat Heidi Heitkamp her razor-thin win in 2012 and are supporting her in her re-election campaign. And that is just part 1247 in America screwing over the Native Americans.

In July, New Hampshire Republicans passed two laws requiring permanent residency for voter registration, targeting college students, a left-leaning constituency. Students would have to pay hundreds of dollars for an in-state driver’s license, akin to a modern poll tax. And older generations wonder why young people don’t vote, when states make it as difficult as possible for them to even register. One of the laws has been struck down, the other tenuously rests on one alleged incident of voter fraud. When questioned about the incident, the bill’s main sponsor, Sherman Packard, said, “Well yeah, I mean they couldn’t prove anything. But it’s still a big issue,” without bringing up any other evidence supporting his claims. That sort of vagueness is just what I like to hear from government officials! To be fair, Democrats too are guilty of voter suppression, preferring to put important local and state elections on the ballot in off years. Thus, groups with a higher stake in the elections (like traditionally Democratic teacher unions) would be more motivated to vote, over ordinary Americans. Furthermore, a few states like deep blue New York cling to the rule that independents are not allowed to vote in the major parties’ primaries. Nationally, 44% of millennials are independents; this rule gives exponentially more power to party leaders or institutions, rather than opening the way for more diverse voices.

Additionally, there are 4 million American citizens in Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico (not to mention thousands more in other US territories) who are denied a voice in federal government, though they themselves are greatly influenced by the government’s actions. Perhaps if Puerto Rico had a representative, more than 3,000 Americans wouldn’t have died there from Hurricane Maria and the gross incompetence of the American government. Perhaps then, we wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the island’s inhabitants as just Puerto Ricans. Finally, America has a history of felon disenfranchisement, or stripping convicted criminals permanently of their right to vote even decades after they serve their sentence. We as a society should rightly punish those who do wrong (although even “punish” might be the wrong intent when healing after crimes should be pursued), but not by permanently disenfranchising them, stripping away their voice forever. There are currently 6.1 million Americans who can’t vote because of a felony conviction; 1 out of 13 African Americans have lost their voting rights because of felony disenfranchisement laws, compared to 1 in 56 non-black Americans. A ballot initiative in Florida is attempting to change this, restoring voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians. And it’s not just other states’ issue. In 2012, PA House Speaker Mike Turzai (just re-elected) was caught on tape admitting that voter ID laws were in place to ensure a Mitt Romney win. That went well. In 2014, that law requiring a state-issued photo ID to vote was struck down; the judge ruled that it was not designed to “assure a fair and free election” and that the state’s $5 million information campaign around it was full of misinformation. And the list of current incidents of voter suppression just goes on, seemingly endlessly.

So then besides those obvious attempts at voter suppression, what exactly is the problem with other methods like voter ID and exact match laws? Hasn’t 2016 taught us that we be worried about the security of our elections? Well, yes, our election databases are certainly susceptible to tampering, but Congress doesn’t seem to care, as the House and the White House blocked $250 million in renewed election security funding this summer. Instead, 34 states have pursued voter purging and voter ID laws, ostensibly to prevent “voter fraud” (of which, according to one study, there have been 35 credible accusations between 2000 and 2014, with nearly 800 million ballots cast), and which a CalTech/MIT study has found reduce turnout (2-3%, or by thousands of votes) and are enforced in discriminatory manners (minority voters are asked more frequently to show IDs than white voters). Between 2008 and 2012, the turnout gap between whites and Latinos doubled in general elections, and the white-black gap nearly doubled as well in primary elections. Additionally, 11% of US citizens lack government-issued IDs; even if IDs were free, applying for documents to obtain them would cost at least $100. The travel to obtain them is burdensome for people with disabilities, the elderly, people of color, and those without access to cars or public transportation. Finally, ID laws are simply enforced in a way to target certain groups. In Texas, concealed weapons permits count but student ID cards don’t. Before a court struck down the law, in North Carolina, public assistance/state employee IDs (held disproportionately by black Americans) were. And in Wisconsin, active duty military ID cards are permitted, but Veterans Affairs ID cards are rejected for voting. Furthermore, even more ballots have been rejected and voter registrations been purged or held arbitrarily. Ohio’s law allowing registered voters who haven’t voted in four years to be kicked off the voter rolls was upheld by the Supreme Court; Georgia’s “exact match” policy puts on hold voter registrations who have signature discrepancies (as determined not by handwriting experts but by ordinary clerks) or minute things like forgetting to write a middle name. It’s not like stress or health or just plain old life results in changes in one’s signature, like adding an extra dot over an “i!”

These attempts at restricting the right to vote erode our democracy in a time where democracy and liberalism (lowercase “l”) are on the decline in nations from Brazil and Sweden to Poland and Hungary. As elections increasingly come down to a few thousand votes (or even one vote last year for the control of Virginia’s House of Delegates), their legitimacy will be called into question, further exacerbating an already dangerous downward trend in our confidence in democracy. Gerrymandering, voter ID laws, exact-match legislation, deliberately closing certain polling locations, and forcing long lines (in one Georgia precinct, it took reportedly until 11:30 AM, from 7 AM, for the line at any voting machine to begin moving) to depress turnout all make our country less democratic, and these policies are the cowardly, easy way out in elections already too far shaped by personality rather than policy. Elections should not be about which party can prevent more people from voting and which party can legally cheat the best, they should be about which party is able to energize their voters the most, which party can produce a popular message that resonates with voters. Only little more than half a century ago, the Voting Rights Act was established to transform the status quo, forcing a system built by the Founding Fathers to exclude to move, slowly but surely, towards democracy. But the way things are going today, we can see now that its efforts were in vain, for the seductive siren’s call of exclusion has overwhelmed our political leaders. But it cannot prevail. The egalitarian democratic system of governance is a system that we must fight for because it upholds the values the we Americans hold so dear to our hearts. This assumption of one person, one vote, one voice, the idea that all American citizens, regardless of background, ought to have a say in their government through fair, free, accessible voting, is the backbone of this country. And if we continue to act like voting is to be granted only to a privileged few, then our democracy will truly only ever be an ideal, one that we will stray further and further from until its eventual collapse.

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