Voter Suppression in a Democracy
an article by Erika Yan
Dear Asian Youth,
When an injustice in our society is pointed out, our first instinct is to tell people to vote. From a young age, we learn about “rule by the people” in which we, as individuals, have the power to speak up and enact change. As a Californian, my history teacher specifically emphasized three processes we have—initiative, referendum, and recall—where voters can vote to change laws or even vote out elected officials. This gives an incredible amount of control to the citizens because we can tackle issues without government consent. We are supposed to take pride in our country’s democratic traits, and America is often compared to other autocratic countries to highlight our democracy as a defining quality. But what is it about the “Land of the Free” that sets it apart from other countries? Certainly, we are not the only country in the world with representative democracy, and a majority of the sovereign countries in the world have “freedom.” To operationally define it, the Human Freedom Index measures human freedom as the absence of coercive constraint, taking into account many factors like legal systems, property rights, the size of government, and security. On a scale from zero to ten, where higher numbers correspond to more freedom, the United States has a ranking of 8.46, putting us in 15th place as of 2019. Furthermore, the Democracy Index quantifies democracy by measuring the electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture, and civil liberties. According to this scale, America is categorized as a “flawed democracy.” Using the same scale from zero to ten, we have a score of 7.96, earning us 25th place. Yikes. So much for the “Land of the Free.”
But this is no surprise. Although suffrage is the cornerstone of our democracy, for many people, it is not a right granted to them as a citizen—rather, it is a privilege. In many places, politicians are passing measures that make it harder to vote. This voter suppression compromises democracy and can severely manipulate political outcomes. For example, voter ID laws dictate where voters must present a certain government-issued photo ID in order to vote. This reduces voter turnout by tens of thousands of votes per state because obtaining these IDs can be costly and time-consuming, discriminating against lower-income communities and those with certain disabilities. In addition to ID laws, states often use the process of cleaning up voter rolls—a list of people who are eligible and registered to vote—to prevent eligible voters from voting for illegitimate reasons. A single purge can prevent hundreds of thousands of people from voting by undoing their registration without their knowledge, and these people often do not have adequate notice before Election Day. A voter purge is supposed to update registration lists as voters move, die, or otherwise become ineligible, but this process is often done irresponsibly and this stops many Americans from casting a ballot that counts. Between 2014 and 2018, 33 million Americans were purged. If several more million Americans were eligible to vote in 2016, could that have changed the election outcome? (YES.)
Although voter suppression impacts all of us, groups like people of color, younger voters, senior citizens, and those with disabilities are disproportionately affected. Counties with larger BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and People of Color—populations have fewer polling sites per voter. Polling sites can be frequently changed, making it hard for these voters to find their polling locations. Only 40% of polling places completely accommodate people with disabilities, and 1 in 3 of voters with disabilities report difficulties voting. Additionally, in some states, a felony conviction can lead to disenfranchisement. This rule specifically targets African Americans—across the United States, 1 in 13 African Americans cannot vote due to disenfranchisement. Additionally, states with the most extreme disenfranchising laws have the longest records of suppressing their rights, and voter purge rates can be 40% higher in states with a history of voting discrimination (literacy tests, poll taxes, voter harassment, etc). Furthermore, even when people do vote, gerrymandering schemes in some places manipulate district boundaries to pack BIPOC voters into as few districts as possible, giving whites significantly more power.
There is a lot of evidence proving how, in 2016, the aforementioned tactics created Republican advantages and how Trump may have been elected not only by appealing to supporting voters but also by silencing opposing voters. More BIPOC voters miss the registration deadline compared to whites, and this isolates certain groups and silences their voices. In Wisconsin, the biggest decreases in voter turnout were in black neighborhoods, and the number of Democrats who could not vote due to the lack of proper ID exceeded Trump’s margin of victory. Voter suppression has the power to change the course of a national election, so if we want to continue to be known as a country that values the voice of every individual, we need to make sure we are providing equal opportunities for everyone to vote.
Attempting to address the racial discrimination in our voting system, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. It prevented districts from changing their election laws and procedures without official authorization and required certain districts to prove there were no attempts to negatively affect minority voters. However, in 2013, the Shelby County v. Holder case challenged the constitutionality of those sections, and the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Act was designed to prohibit what no longer exists and was therefore no longer necessary. This ruling removed crucial protections against voter suppression and discrimination. Justice Ginsberg was of the dissenting opinion and pointed out that “throwing out the Voting Rights Act when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
African Americans are often criticized for not voting but what is not considered are the severe restrictions that hinder their ability to do so. We expect them to fight for rights they have been systematically denied while simultaneously refusing them the right to vote. We need to join this fight not only because it is the right thing to do but also because their fight is our fight—tolerating a country that disregards and silences its vulnerable communities devalues our existence in our nation. We cannot take pride in America’s successes without acknowledging its failures. Voter suppression attacks our civil rights and threatens our democracy. Currently, the Voting Rights Advancement Act is on the Senate floor and would restore voting protections and defend our communities against discrimination. Tell your senators to pass it! In the meantime, the best tool we have to fight voter suppression is—unsurprisingly—to vote. :)
Make sure you know your voting rights! Here is a great resource from the ACLU:
Learn about the voter registration requirements for your state here.