Elections are How Democracies Work, Yet Millions of Americans Are Barred from Voting

Written by Blair Peppe and Vera Ting

When the midterm election comes to a close, the winning candidates will be delivering their speeches to two different groups: One group will be comprised of voters who have claimed their political voices, and for better or worse may feel represented by the victors. The other group will be comprised of “Americans” who have been stripped of their political voice because of felony disenfranchisement, America’s longest standing form of voter suppression.

Despite the political variety in the United States, voting disenfranchisement is practiced in all states except Maine and Vermont. Some opponents oppose the practice by likening it to the medieval practice of civil death. However, in this year’s midterm, there has also been a significant amount of voter suppression in several other forms that will have serious consequences for the results of the election.

In today’s America, roughly 5.8 million citizens cannot vote because of a felony conviction. America has the largest prison systems in the world by both volume and percentage of its citizens, holding 655 citizens per 100,000 people. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of their White American counterparts. Given these statistics, it is not shocking that voter disenfranchisement would disproportionately affect particular voices and impact the United States electoral college.

In 2000, the presidential election gave Republican nominee, George W. Bush, a narrow victory over the Democratic nominee Al Gore. Bush’s win came from the poll results in Florida, a swing state, where he won by fewer than 1,000 votes. It is widely viewed that had disenfranchisement laws not been as vigorously practiced in Florida, which prohibited as many as 620,000 citizens from voting, history would remember the president-elect as a different person. In anticipation of the 2018 midterms, the same point has been argued for the various offices being voted upon in November, especially since the rate of incarceration has only increased since 2000.

Historically speaking, African-Americans are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican (though there are increasingly visible Black Republicans groups and organizations). Taking away the right to vote from a population that has served their due time in prison had deprived millions of American citizens of the ability to decide on the type of country and community they want to be in after their release. Additionally, this restriction of voting rights connects to the racist and classist roles the carceral system has played in shaping minority and working-class communities in America. Returning these citizens’ right to vote could be an integral step in helping reshape neighborhoods across the country.

Other cases of disenfranchisement during this year’s midterm include the suppression of Native American voters in North Dakota due to a technicality that does not allow them to register due to their lack of provable residential addresses. While in Georgia, over 53,000 votes have been placed under scrutiny for minor mismatches in identification on voting records and other forms of ID as part of their “exact match” voting policy. In Kansas, the only polling site in Dodge city has been moved outside of the city, preventing the city’s majority Hispanic population from voting as many face difficulty in finding transportation and have less flexible working schedules. Although North Dakota and Georgia face tight races this year, it seems that neither state will have a true representation of voter wishes with the current state of voting in the areas.

In the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder, the court ruled to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting procedures such as literacy tests. Many of the current restrictions placed on voting can be attributed to this court decision that has allowed the states to place stricter regulations on voters. In the face of the 2018 midterms, we are left to question how we can support the rights of our peers and return the right to vote across the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s “Let People Vote” campaign is focused on ensuring “every Americans right to vote is protected,” according to their website. They push for combating voter suppression in all states through their network of national activists.

On a state level, groups such as the New York Civil Liberties Union push for universal voter rights. From their mission statement on their website, they state, “The NYCLU has been a leader in the fight to actualize and protect every citizen’s ability to exercise this basic constitutional right in New York State.” Let NY Vote is another statewide organization that pushes “to modernize NY’s voting laws. Our mission is to ensure that common-sense solutions are passed to protect and expand the freedom to vote for every eligible New Yorker.” Let NY Vote has arranged several events this year to help inform voters and get people registered.

We must also question why Americans insistent on adhering to the constitution and touting the freedoms of a democratic nation would want to prevent their own from exercising the core right of a citizen, the ability to vote.