Voter Disenfranchisement in a Modern Era
In Mecklenburg County, home of Charlotte, NC, many early voters stood in line for three hours waiting to cast their ballots. One man, a local report says, left the poll deterred by the long lines, only to return in the afternoon to find the wait longer than before. Whether to avoid missing work or the long lines, this option has attracted more and more voters every year, with over 47 million early ballots cast in the 2016 election according to the US Elections Project. Despite this growing population of early voters, the number of voter provisions that were passed by states has increased drastically, with over 20 restrictive legislation measures passed in 2011. North Carolina followed suit in 2013, shortening the early voting period from 17 to 10 days, ending pre-registration for young people, and requiring government-issued photo ID at the polls.
The political symbolism of cracking down on voter fraud in order to protect the integrity of democracy is based on false claims. With a real voter fraud rate between 0.00004 and 0.0009 percent, any supposed justification for implementing these restrictions lacks factual basis. It can be calculated from historic trends that a meaningless number of votes were cast illegally in the 2016 presidential election, with generous estimates around 1250 votes. To put this in perspective, Trump won the closest, most contested states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania by tens of thousands of votes.
Fourteen states had voter restrictions in place for the first time in the 2016 election, and the impact of these laws were clear and devastating. Many of the voting measures affected by these new policies, such as voter ID laws and early voting, predominately affect low socioeconomic status voters and people of color. In North Carolina, a Federal Appeals Court ruled that the new measures targeted African American voters with “almost surgical precision.” One study shows that the proportion of black people who voted early dropped below that of white people for the first time since 2008 following the reduction of voting sites in some states. Another uses census data to determine that 200,000 people were significantly impacted by the legislation in North Carolina, while less than 50,000 votes determine winners in state midterm elections. Additionally, black people wait in line to vote two times longer than white people. Under the banner of eliminating voter fraud, black voters around the state were disenfranchised. State Republicans seemed to boast about the impact of new voter registration in a tweet claiming that the “North Carolina Obama coalition” had crumbled.
These disturbing and heartbreaking consequences of the voter registration laws highlight a shift in racial politics. Many would ask how, in 2013, laws could be passed when their consequences undoubtedly demonstrate racism, regardless of arguments around their intent. Throughout American history, voter disenfranchisement has been achieved through various tactics such as literacy tests. Until the Supreme Court intervened and declared these tests unconstitutional, it was much harder for black people to vote. In Louisiana, the number of eligible black voters declined by over 96% between 1896 and 1900. While voter restrictions today are not as clearly understood to be racist, they have underlying racial impacts. This transformation of policy framing is closely tied to how analogous race and party affiliation have become. While not always at the forefront of American thought or discourse, party affiliation is a large aspect of our social identities. Surveys demonstrate the hierarchical categorization of groups as either Republican, “high class,” or Democrat, “common people.” Race does not escape this reality. Statistically, race is the social cleavage that is the largest determinant of vote choice, and this has not changed since the 1960s.
The voter restriction laws being passed in states around the country must be declared unconstitutional. Not only is it unacceptable to allow race to influence a person’s ability to vote, but they are also influencing the results of national elections. In Wisconsin, 300,000 registered voters lacked the “strict forms of voter ID required.” Voter turnout in the state was at its lowest point in twenty years, dropping 13% in Milwaukee. Seventy percent of the state’s black population lives in that city. Those 41,000 votes would have been sufficient to close Trump’s 27,000 vote lead.
The active and dangerous discrimination of people of color under the veil of partisanship has disenfranchised voters and altered the results of the election. In today’s political environment, discriminating against a political party equivalent to discriminating against minority populations. Simply replacing overt racial prejudice with strategies to improve the likelihood of one party’s success is an active, policy-based reincarnation of voter disenfranchisement tactics such as literacy tests. Any attempt made by legislators to hinder a party’s voter base is equal to overt racial democratic obstruction, and should be treated as such.