Discrimination Elections Politics U.S. Politics Uncategorized

The Limits of American Democracy

Voting and involvement in the democratic process is one of the most basic rights a citizen can have, but in the United States access to this supposedly inalienable right is limited.  Although we are taught that we live in a country built upon a foundation of democracy and equality, our society has instead been structured around the protection of the livelihood of white people through the violent subjugation of minorities.  This subjugation has caused the denial of the humanity and fundamental rights of minority groups, including voting rights, and did not miraculously end in 1968 at the close of the Civil Rights Movement.  Although seemingly a relic of the past, the war on minority voters has continued through both legislative and unofficial reasons.

In Ambridge, Pennsylvania on October 1st, Donald Trump told a rally that it was “important that  [it] watch other communities, because we don’t want this election stolen from us.”  He made similar comments in Manheim, Pennsylvania, and Novi, Michigan, all majority white communities.  He later clarified in a radio interview  that by other “other communities” he meant Philadelphia, which is a majority-minority city.  The election on November 8th will be the first election since the conservative Supreme Court struck down the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, withdrawing federal election monitors from most areas in the United States.  Meanwhile Trump is essentially actively encouraging the harassment of voters at polls in minority-dominated regions.  Over the last 30 years members of the Republican National Committee have been accused of posing as law enforcement officials and demanding Voter ID’s, sending intimidating mail to minority voters, hanging up misleading or intimidating signs or verbally harassing and challenging minority voters at polls.  In 1982, following an extended lawsuit, the RNC signed a settlement agreeing to suppress these practices. However, since 2012, the RNC has claimed that the election of a black president signifies that any laws aimed at encouraging minority groups to vote are no longer necessary.  At the same time, a Tea Party offshoot organization called True the Vote has been training poll watchers to challenge voters at every election since 2012, something that Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings called “a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights,” according to the Washington Post.  Donald Trump’s incendiary comments therefore do not come out of a void, but instead out of the deeply-rooted practice of policing and intimidating minority voters that has continued well past 1968.


The 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington D.C. (Rowland Scherman for USIA, via Wikimedia Commons)

Since 2008, there has also been a slew of legislation passed whose effect has been to limit the participation of minority voters in elections.  These have mostly taken the form of voter ID laws, which Republicans claim are necessary protections against the dangers of voter fraud.  The number of states that require or request that voters show an ID at polls has risen from 0 in 2008 to 32 states currently.  While there were suspicions as to the true purpose of a law that for the most part has been pushed for by Republican representatives from regions where the majority of the population are minorities, there was not enough empirical data to conclusively state whether these laws actually led to a decrease in voter participation.  Republicans argued that these laws  do not in fact limit enfranchisement, stating that 99% of the population has Voter ID’s and that the acquisition of an ID by the 1% who do not is not an overly difficult obstacle to overcome.  Numbers aside (as estimates for the percentage of the population without Voter ID laws actually range from 1%-11%), this discounts the fact that research has shown that minority voters at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are the demographic most likely to lack voter ID’s.   Without the proper papers and documentation, obtaining one can be a bureaucratic and legal nightmare which many simply do not have the time or financial resources to afford.

Recently, a UCSD study has come out which concludes that Voter Id laws have the clear effect of skewing elections by systematically restricting enfranchisement to white people.  Following the passing of these new strict Voter-ID laws, UCSD researchers studying elections from 2008-2012 found that although overall voter turnout neither increased nor decreased due to the presence of strict Voter ID laws, the predicted participation between minority voters (Latinx, African American, and multiracial identifying people) and white people increased significantly, often doubling or tripling due to the presence of these laws.  Because the majority of people of color in the United States vote Democrat, these laws strongly tip election results in the Republican party’s favor.   After their institution, Democratic turnout dropped 7.7% while Republican turnout dropped 4.6%, and turnout for those who self-identified as strong liberals dropped by 10.7% while turnout for those who identified as strong conservatives dropped by only 2.8%.

Voting location sign in California, 2008. (Tom Arthur via Wikimedia Commons)

Contrary to Republican rhetoric, this trend is a much greater threat to American democracy than voter fraud, which according to the academic consensus is rare to the point of nonexistence.  More than 21 million Americans lack Voter ID’s and forcing them to pay for the documentation necessary to obtain one is tantamount to a poll tax, causing what essentially has been a voter purge, disenfranchising thousands.   In Pennsylvania itself, a Voter ID law that would have disproportionately affected the roughly 54.7% non-white population of Philadelphia was thankfully struck down in 2014.  This highlights, however, that even in the community where we live, voting is not in fact a right but a privilege that not everyone has access to.  Race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status among other factors all affect this access.  This affront to human rights must not go unnoticed, and can be combatted by increasing minority access to voting resources and providing the legal recourse necessary for potential voter intimidation lawsuits, as well as (yes) voting if you can.