Criminal InJustice† is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Criminalizing Voters, Criminalizing Us
by nancy a heitzeg
In the year 2012, Criminal InJustice is focused on the Vote of Our Lives — efforts to get it out, get it counted, and certainly efforts to resist both the overt and covert attempts to suppress voter turnout.
A consistent theme throughout all these CI pieces is the role of criminalizing narratives in appealing to public fears through racialized imagery. Most of these narratives are directed towards Criminalizing President Obama. But these themes, of course. are used to criminalize his supporters as well, and contribute to on-going efforts to suppress voters on the left.
Voter ID Legislation
Late last month, all these themes collided in a not-so-perfect storm in Minnesota. The Minnesota Majority — drawing on sadly familiar Dead Breitbart lies about ACORN — exhibited this banner on a companion site devoted to pushing a yes vote on a Minnesota Voter ID Ballot measure. (Promoted by the Republican – dominated MN legislature, this ballot measure is an attempt to force Voter ID requirements after Governor Mark Dayton vetoed similar legislation last term. It would make Minnesota the eighth state to pass Voter ID legislation since the 2010 midterms. Currently, 20 states have some sort of Voter Id Requirement.)
TakeAction Minnesota! demanded the removal of the images — decrying them as racial profiling of voters at its ugliest, designed to drive fear and racial division throughout Minnesota — and demanded an apology.Their concerns were echoed by the Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP:
“The Minnesota Majority advertisement plays into racial stereotypes that have no place in public debate,” he said in the statement. “It reveals how weakly this group believes their own claims that they are trying to battle voter fraud. They know that the myth of voter fraud is nothing but a fraud itself, so they resort to fear and bigotry to make their case.”
Minnesota Majority’s response was an updated banner and claims that opposition was “playing the race card.” The new and unimproved banner is below.
The switch from a costumed Mexican to a Canadian party girl and the replacement of one Black prisoner with a cartooned white counter-part changes nothing. The message in both cases is clear — the ballot must be protected from “thugs”, “illegals”, “socialist sluts” (or is that a student??), mythical men in tights and zombies.
The themes that Kay Whitlock outlined in Criminalizing President Obama are all evident here –
- President Obama as a welfare queen/thief/lazy black person
- President Obama as a rapist/thug/violator of men, women, children, and the entire nation
- President Obama as a deceptive, dishonest, secretive, untrustworthy “sleeper cell” Kenyan/Muslim, bent on the destruction of this country.
Just as President Obama is framed by the right as a “criminal” – a welfare- chiseling free-rider, an “alien”, a “thug”, a fraud, an “Other”, so too are those who vote for him.
We are all criminalized now.
The Myth of Voter Fraud v. Real Voter Disenfranchisement
Voter fraud is a myth – one exposed repeatedly even unwittingly by GOP lawyers enlisted to document the same. Voter fraud is, at most, an isolated event, certainly not the massive electoral scam proponents of voting restrictions portray.
Ironically, the very voters vilified on the Minnesota Majority website and elsewhere are the very voters most likely to be disenfranchised by Voter ID and other regulations. More than 21 million citizens — 11 percent of the population — do not have government ID cards. Many of them are poor, or elderly, or black and Hispanic and the requirement to get a state issued ID, just for the purposes of voting, represents an undue burden in time and money. Others are students or military personnel who rely in other forms of photo identification rather than specific state issued IDs.
In a further irony, The Minnesota Majority website banner would have you believe that “convicts” (please note that they are two of the six “fraudulent” voters) are the biggest threat to the franchise of all. In fact, those convicted of felonies, even though they may be on probation rather than in prison, are amongst the most consistently disenfranchised of all. According to The Sentencing Project:
- 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense.Only two states – Maine and Vermont – permit inmates to vote.
- 35 states prohibit persons on parole from voting and 30 of these states exclude persons on probation as well.
- Four states deny the right to vote to all persons with felony convictions, even after they have completed their sentences. Eight others disenfranchise certain categories of ex-offenders and/or permit application for restoration of rights for specified offenses after a waiting period (e.g., five years in Delaware and Wyoming, and two years in Nebraska).
- Each state has developed its own process of restoring voting rights to ex-offenders but most of these restoration processes are so cumbersome that few ex-offenders are able to take advantage of them.
While felony disenfranchisement laws have been used in the USA since the colonial era, there is no denying that they have been primarily used to disenfranchise Black voters both post-Reconstruction and in the current context of mass incarceration aka “The New Jim Crow”. Again, from The Sentencing Project:
- An estimated 5.4 million Americans, or one in forty adults, have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.
- 1.4 million African American men, or 13% of black men, are disenfranchised, a rate seven times the national average.
- An estimated 676,730 women are currently ineligible to vote as a result of a felony conviction.
- Given current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40% of black men may permanently lose their right to vote
- 2.1 million disenfranchised persons are ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.
This legislation also impacts the outcome of elections. Since African Americans tend to vote overwhelming Democratic, it is the Republican Party that has directly benefited from the racist dimensions of felony disenfranchisement. Escalating rates of felony disenfranchisement and the over-representation by race has already and will continue to impact the outcome of both national and state-level elections. As many as seven Senate races have been affected between 1970 and 1998; in each case the Democrat would have won had disenfranchised felons been allowed to vote. Researchers also estimate that in the 2000 Presidential election Al Gore would have picked up an additional 60,000 votes from disenfranchised felons in the state of Florida, more than enough to overcome the 537 vote margin for Bush when the recount was halted.
Taking Action Against The Real Voter Fraud
The real voter fraud is the on-going right-wing attempt to deny tens of millions of Americans their right to vote. The real crime is the blatant subversion of the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The real theft is that of the franchise from all of us.
The real assault is on Democracy itself.
It’s been more than a century since we’ve seen such a tidal wave of assaults on the right to vote. Historically, when voting rights are attacked, it’s done to facilitate attacks on other rights. It is no mistake that the groups who are behind this are simultaneously attacking very basic women’s rights, environmental protections, labor rights, and educational access for working people and minorities…
This assault — which is comprehensive in its reach and was launched in time to affect the 2012 elections — threatens to undermine the record levels of political participation witnessed during the historic 2008 Presidential Election, by blocking access to people of color, the poor, the elderly and the young..
Don’t let them get away with it.
Again, here are some preliminary actions you can take:
- Check out the excellent set of 2012 Election Tools that Seeta has assembled at the right hand side of this very blog
- Inform yourself and others on your states’ voting requirements. Vote411 is an excellent starting place.
- Sign the Stand for Freedom pledge for Voting Rights and read the NAACP’s new Report – Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America -for additional actions.
- Help the Color of Change Stop Corporate Funded Voter Suppression
- Expose ALEC
- Support the Department of Justice‘s recent efforts to challenge voter id laws
- Support Felon Re-enfranchisement efforts
- Join Organizing for America. The re-election of Barack Obama and the return of Congress to Democratic control is imperative. No, Urgent.
- Commit to bringing at least one first-time voter to the polls with you. Start Now.