by Tracey Brieger, Bay Rising
From initially limiting voting rights only to white male property-owners, to the creation of the electoral college, to modern day legalized voter suppression through voter identification laws, democracy in the U.S. has been hardwired since its inception to undermine the principle of “one person, one vote.”
Though not a new phenomenon, the 2016 election was a historic moment in the U.S.’s institutional embrace of discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Significantly, it was the first presidential election in half a century that didn’t have the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, following the Supreme Court’s gutting in 2013 of some of the law’s powerful anti-discrimination provisions. Another change in the 2016 election was that 14 states adopted new voting restrictions active for the first time.1 Widespread voter suppression inevitably came out of these shifts.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the first wave of voter ID laws was adopted in 2008 as the voting power of youth and people of color swept the nation’s first African-American president to victory. Since then, voting restrictions have spread—facilitated by the elimination of the Voting Rights Act’s required federal approval of voting changes in counties with a demonstrated record of racial discrimination, including in states such as Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Arizona.
Dubbed Jim Crow 2.0, now-common voter restriction laws include photo identification and proof of citizenship requirements, shortened windows for voter registration, absentee ballot voting restrictions, and significant cutbacks in early voting hours. Polling place closures also spread: during this past November’s election, there were at least 868 fewer polling places in counties known to have racial discrimination issues that were formerly covered by Voting Rights Act protections.
All of these changes have documented, disproportionate and disenfranchising impacts on poor people and people of color. In North Carolina where early voting turnout among Black voters for this election decreased by 16%, early voting places decreased by 153 in 40 predominantly Black counties. In Wisconsin where 300,000 registered voters didn’t have the voter identification required under new laws, the state systematically failed to issue identification in time for voters to vote because of bureaucratic confusion and the almost impossibly high bar of paperwork required to get photo ID—Zack Moore, a 34-year old African American man recently re-settled in Wisconsin from Chicago could not get a state ID to vote despite bringing his Illinois photo ID, Social Security card, and a pay stub for proof of residence. He lacked his birth certificate, which his sister had misplaced in Illinois, so the DMV refused him the Wisconsin photo ID he needed to vote.2
Strict voter ID laws have now existed long enough that we have data to prove that turnout among Latino, African American, Asian American and multi-racial American voters significantly declines when the laws are implemented—as they have been almost exclusively forwarded by Republican state legislatures to intentionally disenfranchise people of color.3 The biggest gap is for Latinos, who have a 7.1% lower turnout rate in states with strict ID laws than in those that don’t.4 In one congressional district in Texas in 2014, a study found that 10% of registered voters who had the required ID to meet the state’s strict laws didn’t vote because they didn’t think they had the proper documents – 80% of these voters were Latino and strongly favored Democratic candidates.5 Voter ID laws not only prevent citizens without required ID from voting but also cause a broader chill effect by deterring even those who do have the proper ID from going to the polls. The scope of this legalized voter suppression is significant and potentially game-changing: with voter ID laws in place in 32 states (and at least one more passed that will be in effect by 2018), the number of voters suppressed is “in the millions.”6, 7
Beginning in 2013 across 28 mostly Republican states, the alleged anti-voter fraud program “Crosscheck” had identified 1 million voters to potentially purge from the voter list by November’s election, further compounding voter suppression. Since the program’s lists are secret, it’s impossible to verify the actual number of voters purged. Crafted to identify voters potentially registered in multiple states and remove them from voter registries, the program’s architect is Kris Kobach—Kansas Secretary of State, Trump transition team advisor potentially up for the Secretary of Homeland Security position, and the man who literally wrote the book on the Muslim registry. The program’s methodology is tragically simplistic: for example, in practice it only takes first and last names into consideration, so James Arthur Brown, James Lynn Brown, James Willie Brown and James Clifford Brown are all assumed to be the same voter suspected of voting or registering twice and can be wiped from the voter files. For perspective, there are 357 people with the name James Brown in Georgia alone. The program has significant racial biases: African-American, Latino and Asian names predominate, with serious consequences. Though the Crosscheck lists are confidential, journalists obtained documents showing that the state of Virginia purged at least 41,000 voters from their voter rolls.8 As evidenced by Crosscheck and voter ID laws, it’s clear that voter fraud is a largely fictitious problem exploited for political gain: the Justice Department uncovered a mere 31 credible instances of voter fraud amidst over 1 billion votes cast in elections nationwide from 2000-2014.
In addition to these more recent vehicles of voter suppression, many incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people suffer from long-standing disenfranchisement. As of 2016, over 6 million American citizens cannot vote because of felony convictions. The 12 states with the harshest laws in the nation continue to restrict people’s voting rights even after they have served their sentences and are no longer on probation or parole. Meanwhile, Maine and Vermont are the only two states in the country that do not restrict the voting rights of anyone with a felony conviction, including those currently in prison.
Californians might like to think that voter suppression and disenfranchisement only happen in other states, yet they persist locally. Although no statewide voter ID laws exist, prior felony convictions disenfranchise more than 222,000 Californians. As with all aspects of criminalization, there are disproportionate racial impacts: although African Americans make up only 6% of California’s population, they represent 28% of people disenfranchised because of felonies.9
The overt, “illegal” kinds of voter suppression – intimidation tactics – continue in California, too. The Hmong-American community in Siskiyou County, a rural county in the far north of the state, filed a class action lawsuit against Siskiyou Sheriff Jon Lopey’s department for voter suppression. After rejecting many of the 1,800 new Hmong voter registration applications for incomplete addresses (although the county had not yet assigned them addresses in their unincorporated areas), county officials successfully prodded the state to open a voter fraud investigation of the Hmong residents. Local officers repeatedly drove to the homes of Hmong residents armed with assault rifles, questioning their voter registration status.
A challenge with documenting the scope of voter suppression and disenfranchisement is that there’s no way to fully count the number of people affected: we don’t know how many people are intimidated at the polls, how many people never show up because they think they’re not eligible, how many people—the homeless, elderly, others on the margins—are never able to register in the first place. But perhaps the most insidious thing is that we know that voter suppression mostly doesn’t happen by accident.
Dismissing lower voter turnout among poor people and people of color in the 2016 presidential election simply as a result of uninspiring presidential choices, or blaming the results on Russian hackers misses the critical point that since 2008, right-wing politicians and power brokers have successfully unleashed a meticulously planned and implemented nation-wide voter suppression strategy to disenfranchise poor people and people of color.
With predictions that people of color will be a majority of the U.S. population within several decades, there is hopeful excitement about how this will transform the political landscape since people of color tend to vote more progressively than white people. A core necessity to harness this power though, is ensuring that everyone actually has the right to vote and can exercise that right. Here in California – and specifically the Bay Area – that means building power in poor communities and communities of color to catalyze strong people’s movements while we stand up for our right to vote, exercise our power in elections, and build a pipeline of progressive leaders who can help shift the national political landscape. Join us!
1 Brennan Center for Justice: http://www.brennancenter.org/voting-restrictions-first-time-2016 (downloaded November 30, 2016).
2 Berman, Ari. “Wisconsin Is Systematically Failing to Provide the Photo IDs Required to Vote in November.” The Nation: September 29, 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/wisconsin-is-systematically-failing-to-provide-the-photo-ids-required-to-vote-in-november/
3 Bentele, K.G. and O’Brien, E.E. (2013) ‘Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies’, Perspectives on Politics, 11(4), pp. 1088–1116. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/jim-crow-20-why-states-consider-and-adopt-restrictive-voter-access-policies/A3FD871345BE34882F434CA89489D64A.
4 Hajnal, Zoltan L. “The results on voter ID laws are in — and it’s bad news for ethnic and racial minorities.” Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hajnal-voter-id-research-20160908-snap-story.html
5 Berman, Ari. “The GOP’s Attack on Voting Rights Was the Most Under-Covered Story of 2016.” The Nation: November 9, 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-gops-attack-on-voting-rights-was-t…
6 National Conference of State Legislatures: http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-id.aspx (downloaded November 30, 2016).
7 Milibank, Dana. “The election was rigged.” The Washington Post, November 29, 2016. htthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-election-really-was-rigged/2016/11/29/c2ed58d8-b666-11e6-a677-b608fbb3aaf6_story.html?utm_term=.9d75e5f4759a&wpisrc=nl_p1most-partner-1&wpmm=1.
8 Palast, Greg. “The GOP’s Stealth War Against Voters,” Rolling Stone, August 24, 2016. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/the-gops-stealth-war-against-voters-w435890
9 The Sentencing Project: “Felony Disenfranchisement, A Primer” (http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/felony-disenfranchisement-…) and “State by State Data” (http://www.sentencingproject.org/the-facts/#detail?state1Option=U.S.%20T…)
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