In case anyone has somehow missed it, we've got a Presidential election on our hands in the US this year, which means an explosion of political advertising, a round of debates, and, of course, a flood of people hitting the polls in November to make their mark on electoral politics. This year, however, you're going to see some changes at the polls in several states, and a lot of those changes are decidedly not good.
Here's the thing about voting in the United States: In theory, it's a right extended to every citizen of voting age, with a few notable exceptions, namely imprisoned felons, and in some cases parolees. In practice, it's never really worked that way. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act and other measures intended to protect voters, there have always been stumbling blocks placed in the paths of certain voters like people of colour and people with disabilities.
And this year, we're seeing the numbers of barriers increasing, rather than decreasing. There's a concerted effort in the United States to turn voting into a privilege available for the few, just as it was at the start of this nation's history when only white male property owners could vote, and the rest of us were, as they say, SOL.
It's not just about things like voter intimidation, inaccessible polling places, and other de facto measures used to make it more difficult to vote. It's also de jure, institutional disenfranchisement that hits vulnerable groups where it hurts, and unsurprisingly, it's highly partisan in nature, because the people most likely to be affected by things like voter ID laws are also most likely to vote with the Democratic party.
Meet voter identification laws, purges, redistricting, changes to voter registration laws, changes to early voting, and the war on voting veterans and military members.
Many states have passed voter ID laws, requiring identification in order to vote. On its surface, such laws are supposed to prevent voter fraud, the boogiemonster evoked in almost all cases of disenfranchisement. Fraud, voters are told, is a threat to democracy that must be halted at all costs, and requiring ID is supposed to be a simple method of narrowing the genuine voters from the fakers, even though actual fraud rates are extremely low.
Only problem here is that not everyone has ID; it can be difficult to obtain for homeless people, people with disabilities, and people lacking formal documentation, which, unsurprisingly, usually includes low-income people. Some people don't have birth certificates and other documents they need to establish residency and eligibility for IDs, and can't afford the process of documenting their legal existence and citizenship.
Hence, you have situations like that faced by Thelma Mitchell, a 93-year-old Black woman who'd been voting for decades and was told her identification wouldn't be allowable at the polls.
Purging the Rolls
Most states periodically purge their voter rolls to remove duplicate entries and dead people, in an attempt to keep their records clean. A few states, like Florida, do so under tight scrutiny because they have a past history of being, ahem, a little overzealous in their purging. In fact, the state is currently being sued by the Department of Justice over its current attempt to purge non-citizens from the rolls, as the DOJ fears that the list generated by the state may contain a number of errors.
A lot of Florida counties agree, and have refused to enforce the purge. Notably, 87% of those targeted by the original list were racial minorities.
Florida isn't the only state where purging, a tool ostensibly designed to keep voter ID rolls clean, has become a tool for voter suppression. A tool that, again, tends to target migrants, people of low income, and racial minorities.
Thanks to the recent census, redistricting is also occurring in a number of states, as boundaries are redrawn to reflect population changes. This practice is supposed to ensure equal representation in our representative democracy, but in fact, it can turn out to have sinister political implications because, no surprise, the commissions put in charge of redistricting usually have their own agendas. Depending on where those boundary lines are placed, electoral results can change rather a lot.
Both Democrats and Republicans on redistricting committees have been accused of redrawing boundaries in an attempt to favour their parties, and disenfranchise members of the opposite party. While the court cases rage, voters are left wondering whether their votes will be counted in the next election.
Barriers to Voter Registration
I recently had to get a new driver's license and right there in the application packet, there was a handy voter registration form. Convenient. Some states have a variety of resources to make it as easy as possible to register to vote, while others do not, and many specifically target groups that collect mass registrations, particularly those from minority groups.
Our friends in Florida, for example, have changed the voter registration process, making it harder to collect and submit voter registrations on behalf of other people, like residents of minority neighbourhoods, or college students who haven't registered to vote yet. Groups interested in increasing participation in the electoral process need to follow an increasingly arcane series of rules, and if they mess up, the people they register may not be aware of it. The result can be a rude surprise when they go to the polls.
Nice Voting If You Can Get It: Changes to Early Voting Policies
Early voting can be awfully convenient, sometimes critically so, for people who can't make it to the polls on election day. Which is why it's troubling to see several states placing restrictions on early voting, making it harder, rather than easier, for people to submit their ballots. Notably, many of these states are swing states, where every vote can be critical, and lost votes may be particularly important in a potentially contentious Presidential election, as Barack Obama is by no means guaranteed a second term. In almost all of these states, the changes were pushed through by Republican-controlled legislatures.
Serve Our Country, Miss the Election
Service members and overseas voters have their own voting process, involving absentee ballots sent to them well in advance of the election to give them time to fill them out and return them. Several states, however, are not sending those ballots out in time for people to fill them out and return them by the deadline.
Active-duty servicemembers aren't the only ones; last year, an 86-year-old veteran was essentially charged a poll tax to vote.
The Republican party appears to have a massive voter suppression strategy underway in the hopes that this will secure the election for them, and groups like the NAACP warn that this could have a serious impact on Black and Latino voters in particular. It's notable that Eric Holder's DOJ has been holding the line hard on civil rights, and that the Republicans responded by attempting to hold him in contempt of Congress over the Fast and Furious fiasco. This blatant act of retaliation led to a walkout by a number of Democrats.
Voting in the United States should be a right, not a privilege, for members of all political parties. It's critical to act now to protect existing voting rights, and claw back the tide of anti-voter laws. Write your legislators, write your state AG, and support organisations like the NAACP and ACLU that lobby for voting rights in your state as well as others.
And on election day, be alert. If you see problems at the polls, report them. Election Protection (866-OUR-VOTE) wants to hear from you.