Americans like to think that one of the guiding principles of the United States of America is that the government is elected for the people and by the people. In line with this ideal, every American citizen, regardless of social station, education, or means, is supposed to get one vote with which to weigh into the selection of political representation—a millionaire’s vote has the same value as a homeless person’s. Politicians are elected to serve the good of the people that they represent and are held accountable through elections. Because voting is such a vital component of our democracy, it is important that the voting process not be corrupted by those in power.
Unfortunately, the practical application of the USA’s voting laws has failed to live up to our lofty ideal, both in history and today. For as long as the USA has existed, there have been those who want to limit the voting franchise in order to push an agenda or discriminate against a less powerful group. Some political groups have attempted to control the government, not by bringing other people to their side, but by simply preventing groups who are likely to disagree with them from ever being allowed into the voting process.
Historically, the United States voting system has not been implemented in a way which is equitable to women and racial minorities. Women, Native Americans and African Americans were unable to vote under the law for most of the early years of our country. Not until the 1920 were women allowed to vote in federal elections (state election laws were decided on an individual basis). Even after the civil war and the passing of the 15th Amendment, states would discriminate against African Americans through “poll taxes” or “literacy tests” as a method of keeping them from affecting society. What most of us would like to think is that today, we have evolved past such discriminatory and immoral means of operating our elections, but recent events have shed doubt on this hope.
While we like to think that our country’s days of voter disenfranchisement are long gone, recent years have seen a massive resurgence in the effort to limit voting privileges on both the state and federal levels. Several major types of voter disenfranchisement laws that have gained prevalence in this new round of voter suppression:
1) Voter Identification Requirements
By requiring a type of identification not usually held by certain demographics, politicians can disenfranchise specific groups of voters. While legally allowed to vote, those without ID are not allowed to cast ballots, thus they are functionally unable to exercise their right to vote. Members of different demographic groups have different likelihoods of carrying different types of identification. For example: young voters living in an urban environment are far less likely to carry driver’s licenses than middle-aged voters living in the suburbs. By identifying the types of identification that are statistically more likely to be carried by friendly demographics and less likely to be carried by unfriendly demographics, politicians can game the voter-ID requirements to benefit their own party.
Many will claim that these identification requirements are fair because they don’t discriminate overtly, and necessary due to voter fraud; both of these assertions are demonstrably false, and nothing more than the excuse to rig the election. Voter ID laws are created in order to make it more difficult for certain people to vote, and the types of ID which are required are chosen accordingly. Just as with the old “poll taxes”, the fact that everybody is asked for the same thing doesn’t mean that the laws aren’t discriminatory.
While those who support voter ID laws claim to be attempting to stop a massive epidemic of voter fraud, there is no evidence to back this up. Despite extensive investigations into the potential for voter fraud by government agencies and political organizations, very few cases have been confirmed and even fewer people have been convicted. At the very least, there aren’t enough cases of voter fraud to rationally justify the implementation of laws which illegally disenfranchise large portions of the population (ex. the PA voter ID law—which was blocked by the judiciary—was estimated to disenfranchise 10% of the state).
Recent pieces of legislation have been passed in conservative legislatures which are aimed at forcing every voter to show ID at the polls. In most cases, the required ID is a government issued photo ID (ex. passport, driver’s license, etc.). Unfortunately, these laws have been going into effect only months away from the 2012 presidential election, thus it is essentially impossible for every legal voter to get their ID in time for the election (the states simply couldn’t handle the workload).
Conservatives have enacted these strict voter ID laws because the groups who are likely to be disenfranchised by such laws include students, urban residents, racial minorities, and the poor—all of which are Democratic-leaning demographics. It is less common for these demographics to have a driver’s license or passport than many conservative demographics (ex. working-class white males), thus these restrictions are able to disproportionately restrict Democratic voters over Republican voters.
As an interesting note: Student IDs, even from state colleges, are not allowed as a form of voter ID, yet a gun permit is—this is because students tend to vote liberally, while gun-owners tend to vote conservatively.
2) Restricting the time and locations of voting
Some legislators utilize the tactic of selectively reducing the times and places where citizens can legally vote in order to shrink the voting population. If fewer people are able to vote, or voting becomes too inconvenient for many people, then the voting pool can be shrunk without any overt disenfranchisement.
Through the closing of voting locations, or the under-supplying of selected locations with voting stations, partisan officials can significantly affect the vote. A lack of functioning voting machines in a voting district often leads to huge lines and sometimes even the complete shutdown of the polling place. Officials who wish to manipulate the vote through the allocation of resources simply under-supply the districts which are likely to vote against their candidate; this allows them to keep up the pretense of a fair election, but to weight the vote in favor of their interests.
As voting day is not a holiday in the United States, long wait times at the polls are particularly damaging to poor workers who are unable to get significant amounts of time off. Long lines at the voting booth act as a de-facto poll tax, and those who are unable to leave their jobs for long periods of time, if not take the day off, bear the brunt of this disenfranchisement.
In addition to selectively manipulating voting resources in districts, politicians can manipulate early voting hours in order to reduce certain populations’ ability to vote. The poor, disabled, and elderly find early voting to be extremely advantageous, as early voting reduces the amount of time and effort that must be put into voting. Elderly and disabled Americans, who would be physically unable to wait for hours at the polls, find it far easier to exercise their right to vote when they are allowed to utilize early voting. Poor Americans often find early voting advantageous because it allows them to vote during the weekend, thus avoiding the loss of a full day’s work that would have resulted from waiting at the polls on election day.
Some African American churches have adopted the effective and socially beneficial practice of organizing voting drives during the Sunday before elections (souls to the polls); this practice is both highly laudable, and extremely good at getting those who would otherwise be unable to vote to the polls. Through their prominent connection to their community, these churches are able to organize large numbers of African American voters (most of whom support Democrats) to vote. If early voting is not available, efforts by these groups to organize voting drives—such as those by African American churches—are not possible.
By reducing early voting and absentee voting in the months before the 2012 election, conservative politicians have attempted to reduce the minority, poor and elderly populations which vote in the next election. Mike Turzai, the Republican House majority leader of Pennsylvania, described the true goals of the voter identification movement perfectly when he said: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” Most politicians aren’t as honest (or simply loose-lipped) as Rep. Turzai, but it is virtually inarguable that the primary motivations for voter ID laws are based in voter suppression.
3) Attacking voter registration
Politicians are able to attack the funding and increase the regulations limiting voting registration organizations in an attempt to rig the vote. By attacking the organizations which register demographics that tend to support their opponents, politicians are able to reduce the total number of voters who are likely to vote for their opponents. This manner of voter disenfranchisement is extremely subversive, as it prevents people from even having the ability to vote, rather than stopping them when they try to vote.
Recent attacks on voter registration organizations include: limiting the time for forms to be passed in, increasing fines levied against these organization, and attacking the funding of voter registration organizations.
As we saw with the organization Acorn, these tactics are often very effective and can result in the defunding and disassembling of entire voter registration organizations. While the demise of Acorn is the most well-known case of this type of attack on voting, it is not a unique situation. The passage of new restrictions during 2011 essentially destroyed the voter registration organizations of the state of Florida, and has led to a near-complete cessation of organized voter registration within the state.
Through destroying voter registration organizations, particularly ones targeting minorities and young students, conservatives have attempted to reduce the number of registered voter who are likely to vote democratic. Functionally speaking, reducing the number of registered voters is identical to obstructing them at the polls or purging them from the rolls, thus attacking voter registration organizations is as effective as directly disenfranchising voters at the polls.
4) “Voter purges”
Voter purges are used by some politicians to disenfranchise large numbers of voters who tend not to vote for them. By fabricating a reason to take these voters off of the voter registration lists—often by claiming that they have moved or are legally unable to vote—it is possible for politicians to complicate the voting process for those who are unlikely to support them. At a minimum, voter purges require citizens to prove their ability to vote, thus making the process of voting more time consuming and difficult to achieve. In a worst case scenario, the purged voter is unable to prove their ability to vote in time, or simply doesn’t know how to do so, and becomes disenfranchised.
These voter purges are the most direct form of voter suppression that we have seen since the days of Jim Crow: voters are simply taken off of the voting rolls and are explicitly denied the franchise. The most egregious examples such modern partisan voter purges can be found in the state of Florida during the lead ups to the 2000 and 2012 elections: In both cases, the Republican legislature enacted stringent voter purges targeted at democratic leaning demographics—purging “suspected felons”, most of whom where African American, in 2000 and “suspected illegal residents”, most of whom are Hispanic, in 2012.
5) Barring Felons from Voting
One of the most overlooked, but extremely dangerous, forms of voter disenfranchisement is that of barring convicted felons from being allowed to vote. In many states, the legislature or governor’s office has the power to deny felons the ability to vote—a power which allows partisan politicians to be able to manipulate the vote.
Many people overlook this form of disenfranchisement because it targets those who have the stigma of a criminal record, but they fail to see the bigger picture. Our criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to the “war on drugs”, does not treat everybody equally, thus some demographics are more likely to be disenfranchised due to a felony record. Poor Americans and racial minorities are statistically more likely than wealthy or middle-class caucasians to be arrested and charged with a crime; in addition to this, even in cases where more-privileged demographics are arrested, they are more likely to receive a lesser sentence (ex. dropping a felony down to a misdemeanor). When felons are barred from voting, it is inevitable that the structural inequalities of the criminal justice system will be translated into the voting franchise.
Voter Disenfranchisement through Individual Action
While the efforts by politicians to rig the electorate and voting process have been common in recent years, they are by no means the only attacks on voters; numerous private individuals and activist groups are also running efforts to disenfranchise voters who don’t support their political goals. Activists and political groups may not be able to alter the law in order to manipulate the vote, but they are able to intimidate, trick, or obstruct voters who are attempting to exercise their right to cast a ballot.
The use of dirty tricks by non-governmental groups to affect the vote is a very old tactic and has been fairly common in our country. Large aggregations of power and money are able to trick or intimidate individuals into conforming with the views of the collective, thus they are able to have a real effect on the vote. In most cases historical cases of non-governmental voter manipulation, the methods used to achieve the manipulation can be put into one of three categories: intimidation, bribery, or disinformation.
Intimidation: Threatening people at the polls or with consequences if they vote for a specific candidate (ex. unions compelling members to vote in a block or face isolation, people showing up at the polls and acting openly intimidating towards certain voters, etc.).
Bribery: Buying votes for a specific candidate or party with money or material gifts (ex. offering money to people who show a voter receipt that has them voting for a favored candidate).
Disinformation: Spreading false information about the time, place, and mechanisms of voting, in an attempt to make it harder to vote (ex. sponsoring robo-calls to people registered to a party that give the wring times and places for voting).
In recent years, and particularly in the time before the 2012 election, we have seen a massive increase in non-governmental voter manipulation. Numerous groups and activists have been caught utilizing dirty tricks in order to manipulate the electorate. These efforts are extremely pervasive and are a serious threat to our democracy—unless it is free and fair, an election is simply a veneer of democracy on top of a corrupt government (ex. Iran). The following are the largest and most dangerous examples of non-governmental voter manipulation that we have seen in recent years:
1) Organizing “Poll-Watchers” to Challenge People at the Polls
In preparation for the 2012 election, numerous right-wing groups have gathered, organized, and trained large numbers of “poll watchers”. These “poll watchers’ are tasked with going to polling places on election day in order to look for “voter fraud” and challenge the voting eligibility of people who they suspect to be illegitimate voters. Once these people challenge voters, the voting officials may force the voter to vote provisionally (depending upon the state), or the line is simply held up and voting takes longer—in either case, these people represent an obstruction and serve no constructive purpose.
As the poll watchers have no information about individuals, they rely solely upon appearances and bias to base their challenges upon—put plainly, they are an excuse for white conservatives to go into minority neighborhoods’ polling places in order to harass, obstruct, and intimidate voters on Election Day.
The largest of these groups is an extension of a Texas-based Tea Party organization called “True the Vote”. True the Vote has thousands of volunteers, who they deploy in minority or lower income neighborhoods to challenge voters; they very rarely are present in voting areas which are upper-income and are essentially never present in voting places that are certainly Republican. To further compound the obvious partisanship of this group’s operations, they have donated thousands of dollars to Republican groups and have distributed Republican propaganda about alleged Democratic “voter fraud”.
When partisan ideologues are sent to the polls, with the express objective of using a person’s appearance to spot their eligibility for voting, there are several severe problems which are created. First and foremost, letting activists of a party go into a polling place and selectively challenge voters for removal based upon appearance is anti-democratic and a platform for racist voter disenfranchisement. Secondly, these “poll watchers” obstruct the voting process and increase the lines at polling places with their specious challenges—this makes voting harder in targeted areas (mostly poor and minority areas), and serves to make voting more difficult for these people. Finally, the intimidation factor of having people at the polls single out voters is not appropriate and should be banned, just as no group is allowed to electioneer inside of the voting place.
All in all, “poll watching” represents a misguided and partisan attempt to obstruct the election in districts where the poll watchers want to suppress voting. By targeting areas that are unlikely to vote for Republicans, the Tea Party poll watchers make it more difficult and time-consuming to vote in these places, and, in some cases, are able to completely block people from passing regular ballots.
2) Disinformation Campaigns
Probably the most common and widespread tactic for suppressing the vote is to spread disinformation about when, where, and how to vote. By sowing confusion in the population about how to exercise their rights, and targeting this confusion at groups that are unlikely to vote in their interests, partisans are able to make it harder for their opponents’ supporters to vote. Such ads can give incorrect scheduling information (ex. claiming that the election is on the wrong day), incorrect voting requirements (ex. demanding voter ID at the polls), or can attempt to confuse people as to how they are able to vote (ex. saying that a ballot will be sent out to everybody and that showing up at the polls is unnecessary).
During the 2012 election cycle, we saw numerous examples of disinformation campaigns that were aimed at convincing people that voter ID laws were in effect, even in places where they weren’t. These campaigns convince people that they need ID, even if the law doesn’t agree, thus they prevent some voters from ever even trying to go to the polls.
The ad above is incorrectly claiming that voters should supply ID at the polls during the 2012 election, and is targeted at Spanish-speaking citizens. This billboard is an example of a voter disenfranchisement ad that seeks to trick people of a specific demographic group into thinking that they are unable to vote. The method of targeting this ad is through language and location (Spanish in a primarily Latino neighborhood of Pennsylvania), but others have simply been targeted through geographic location—groups have posted such ads in majority African-American neighborhoods, but not in majority white neighborhoods.
Not only have the 2012 election cycle’s disinformation ads been focused upon voter ID requirements, but they also have attempted to make certain groups vote on the wrong day. The Maricopa County election board in Arizona printed the incorrect date for voting in the Spanish version of many of its voting documents—this was not limited to a single instance and was included in several different translations.
As is obvious, such an ad is attempting to give Spanish-speakers the wrong information and trick them into voting on the wrong day (robbing them of their vote). This tactic will only likely affect low-information voters who speak Spanish, but it represents a very clear example of an attempt to disenfranchise Spanish-speaking voters.
Our voters, particularly in swing states, have been exposed to a great deal of misinformation during the 2012 election cycle. This misinformation is specifically designed to attack certain voting groups—most of whom are racial minorities—and swing the election in favor of the Republicans. Attempting to win an election through preventing the other side from voting is wrong, un-American, and should be decried by every American voter, regardless of partisanship.
3) Getting Employers to Threaten Employees
In the months before the 2012 election, we have seen numerous businessmen attempt to manipulate their employees’ votes through threatening their jobs or benefits if Obama wins the election. As employers hold immense power over their employees, this type of manipulation is a very dangerous an unfair tactic that preys on the workers’ fear of being fired. Workers are faced with the danger of losing their livelihood, and with it their health insurance, if they vote their consciences against the wills of their bosses—this situation is intensely anti-democratic and represents a massive threat to the American democracy.
Romney himself appears to support attempt by CEOs to manipulate their employees’s votes. During a recent talk with a business group, Romney said “I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections;” when put into context, the meaning of this request is simply to ask CEOs to threaten their employees into supporting corporate-friendly (right wing) candidates.
While there are likely more cases of this then have been reported, here are a few examples of CEOs who have issued these threats:
Robert Murrey –The owner of Murrey Energy who has not only threatened reprecussions against employees if Obama is elected, but also forced workers to attend Republican campaign events without pay and compelled them to give money to Republican groups.
David Siegel – The CEO of Westgate Resorts threatened to downsize his company and fire many of his workers if Obama wins re-election.
Scott Farmer – The CEO of the Cintas uniform Company threatened to stop covering employee healthcare and decrease wages if Obama is re-elected.
Without a doubt, these attempts by CEOs to control their employees’ votes are unethical and a complete perversion of the democratic process—a vote is meaningless if you can only vote for one candidate without risking your job and the security of your family. Unfortunately, these CEOs have shielded themselves by never explicitly saying that their employees should vote for Romney, only that a vote for Obama would put their jobs at jeopardy; through wiggling through this loophole, they will likely avoid any repercussions for their actions, but that does not mean that they shouldn’t be condemned for their behavior.
Voter Disenfranchisement is Voter Fraud
Despite all of the talk about “voter fraud” many people have failed to see the true source of election fraud in our country: voter disenfranchisement. If we consider the total number of eligible voters as a zero-line (100% accuracy in voting) for the election, any deviation from this number is potential “voter fraud”—people who vote illegally cause a positive deviation from the ideal point, while people to be illegally disenfranchised cause a negative deviation from the ideal point.
Put plainly, every person to vote while ineligible has the very same distorting effect on the election as every person to be illegally disenfranchised. Every person to be turned away at the voting booths is a case of voting fraud by those who intentionally limited the vote. In comparison with the dozens of confirmed “voter fraud” cases, thousands of legal voters are currently facing voter disenfranchisement. Simply by looking at the numbers, we see that the true danger of voter fraud exists in the blocking of the vote, not voters attempting to get their votes counted multiple times (or appearing at the polling places pretending to be Mickey Mouse).
Everybody who cares about democracy and the ideal of fair elections needs to clearly make the case that voter fraud isn’t just perpetrated by those attempting to vote illegally; it is also present in cases where those who should legally be able to vote are not allowed to. Every voter to be illegally disenfranchised should be portrayed as a case of voter fraud by the legislators and activists who attempt to rig the vote in their favor.
While many might see non-governmental voter manipulation as a non-partisan issue, it remains true that a vast majority of the confirmed cases of such manipulation have been perpetrated by the right wing. As the conservatives have a strong interest in keeping the electorate small (historically, they gain more power as fewer people vote), they are the ones who benefit from voter disenfranchisement. In addition to this, the alignment of corporate interests with the right wing agenda (lower taxes/regulation, reduced worker protections, etc.), has led corporate groups’ voter manipulation to become almost exclusively in favor of the right wing. Whether by design or by chance, the problem of modern voter manipulation exists as a conservative effort to condense the vote.
Voter disenfranchisement today is primarily the Republican Party’s attempts to suppress the voter turnout and eligibility of certain types of people who tend not to vote for them or their allies. In modern times, the Democratic Party has virtually no history of voter suppression—in fact, the higher the total numbers of voters, the better chance Democrats have to be elected. Groups which vote disproportionately democratic are: Students/the young, first time voters, the poor, union workers, and minorities. All of these groups are in some way harmed by the recent voter suppression bills and campaigns that have been enacted in the states recently.