† 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, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
VOTER SUPPRESSION IN 2016
by Kay Whitlock
Polls, punditry, and prognostications regarding the likely outcomes of Election 2016 aside, many formal and informal varieties of voter suppression and restriction may finally be the determining variable.
The 2016 presidential election is the first in 50 years in which the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) are no longer even theoretically possible. But it’s important to remember that these protections were never completely delivered while that law was intact.
Even in the years following the passage of and before the gutting of the indispensable VRA, many strategies to eviscerate the right to vote, particularly for Black people, Indigenous peoples and immigrants of color, were put into place. Long before the U.S. Supreme monkey wrenched the VRA and a new generation of Voter ID laws were put in place, voting rights were in deep trouble.
And the situation is worse than you think.
Black and other communities of color continue to bear the overwhelming brunt of disenfranchisement, but the ability of poor and homeless people, students, people with disabilities, and seniors to register and cast votes is also at stake. The accurate counting and verification of votes matters to us all. Yet despite ardent promises to remedy the massive corruption of Florida and Ohio between 2000 to the present day – the two states whose votes may well determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election – systemic suppression persists – not only through law, but also by means of procedural manipulation. These include: reducing opportunities for early voting, slashing the number of polling places, reducing the hours a polling place is open, relying on voting equipment and methodologies with known problems, and the dissemination of inadequate, inconsistent, and confusing information regarding registration and other electoral activities. Moreover, electoral databases and various election-related technologies may be more vulnerable to hacking than we’d like to believe.
The politicians won’t deal with this effectively on their own; too much money is in play and cronyism is a perpetual issue. The Department of Justice is limited in what it can and wants to do. Lawsuits may help, but we can’t depend on them as a primary strategy when so many judges are the result of polarized and highly partisan selection/election processes. Moreover, some state governments may simply refuse to comply with federal court and U.S. Supreme Court rulings they dislike leaving open the questions of if and how compliance is to be enforced.
Only sustained community organizing within mass movements for justice has the potential to force deeper structural voting rights transformation, no matter who’s in power. Republicans may be responsible for the most massive and worst contemporary abuses of political power in the voting rights arena, but too many Democrats also share culpability for tilting elections in favor of particular candidates and well-entrenched party machines.
How to Suppress Voting & Manipulate Elections
Here’s a short list, by no means exhaustive, of some of the major challenges.
Since 2008, a strategic focus on gaining control of state governments has paid off handsomely for the Republicans. By 2015, according to Reuters, they controlled both the governor’s office and legislatures in 24 states, “70 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers, both chambers in 30 states, plus Nebraska’s single changer, and 31 governor’s mansions.”
It’s a stunning consolidation of power within a “states’ rights” context where state laws and procedures determine who will be able to vote, how, and when.
States are also charged with redistricting, or redrawing Congressional and state legislative district boundaries every 10 years, ostensibly to ensure fair representation. In reality, the process is often subject to gerrymandering, which partisan manipulation to favor incumbents and particular political parties at least until the next mandated redistricting. Usually, the most obvious result is to dilute the voting power of Black communities.
The liberal/progressive narrative of a “dying GOP” whose outlandish positions and upfront bigotries will do it in is based on presidential primary machinations, and it is vastly overstated.
In the states, Republican rule and policy incubation is vigorous and thriving. But national polls reflect none of this. The real action of the election will take place in the weeds of state and local restrictions and manipulation.
A recent political tidal wave of laws requiring or strengthening existing requirements regarding elective acceptable written proofs of identity is devastating the electoral landscape.
Today, 33 states have ID laws; Texas and 14 other states will introduce such laws for the first time in a presidential election in 2016. Largely a Republican political construction, the laws have the effect of suppressing votes in Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities – and also people with disabilities, seniors, students, and poor/homeless people.
The Institute for Southern Studies and other election watchdog groups raise profound concerns over language barriers faced by prospective and eligible voters who do not speak English as their first language and have limited English proficiency. These include confusing or inconsistent registration information, ballots, and other voting materials and procedures.
In 2016, for example, the Kansas secretary of state, formerly an official in the George W. Bush administration and an outspoken proponent of anti-immigrant laws, issued different information for some aspects voter registration in English- and Spanish-language voter guides.
In a time when anti-immigrant fervor is high-pitched and intentionally stoked by major political and civic leaders, language barriers become dangerously fraught.
You can’t vote if your name isn’t on the official list.
Periodically, voter registration lists are “purged” of names, ostensibly to update and improve the lists’ accuracy. Names of people who have died, for example, or moved away, should be removed. Where names are legally changed, that should be reflected.
Describing voter registration lists as the essential “gateway to voting” Brennan Center for Justice points out that “purges” of these records are, in many cases, susceptible to manipulation. But problems are usually identified too late, at a point of crisis, when significant disenfranchisement may already be occurring. Typically, there is no reliable and independent public oversight of voter registration purges; they are often conducted in ways that are secret, prone to error, and intensely partisan.
The problems are widespread, from Florida to Arizona to New York, and beyond.
Literally millions of otherwise eligible voters, disproportionately Black, are temporarily or for their lifetime (in three states) denied the right to vote based on past criminal convictions. Thirty-four states impose some sort of criminal record disenfranchisement.
The Good News
The news isn’t all bad; California, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia have adopted automatic voter registration laws, and similar measures have been or are being considered in other states and the District of Columbia. And, by executive order, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe recently restored voting rights to over 200,000 people, disproportionately Black, with previous felony convictions.
But executive orders can be undone with a change in administration, and we’re playing catch-up to, literally, hundreds of years of supremacy-inflected manipulation and distribution of voting rights.
Get Angry, Get Creative, and Get Organized
The system isn’t broken: it’s supremacist, and it’s working. It’s our job to dismantle the supremacist ideologies and resulting structures that keep denial of voting rights and voter suppression intact. And it’s our job to hold accountable whoever keeps any form of these corrupt practices intact – Democrats as well as Republicans.
This is about democracy. It’s not about party machines.
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