The Material World column from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The right to vote matters little if you can’t cast your vote. On the basis of its claim to be defenders of democracy one would expect the United States of America to be in the forefront of encouraging participation in the electoral process since voting is held up as the foundation of democracy. Over 100 million Americans will cast a ballot in November’s presidential election but many will face disenfranchisement — those without IDs, those convicted of crimes, those that need to work, those that can't find childcare, those that can't travel, and often this disenfranchisement is deliberate. In 2008, the Supreme Court opened the door to more restrictive voting procedures when it upheld an Indiana law that required all voters casting a ballot in person to present a federal or Indiana photo ID. Since 2010, many other states have either introduced restrictive voter procedures or tightened up those in operation. Events are, of course, currently unfolding as legal challenges are being made to restrictive laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union noted that new restrictions on voting will affect up to 80 million and critics argue that photo ID laws create a financial barrier to the ballot box. Former Attorney General Eric Holder compared the laws to a poll tax during the ‘Jim Crow Era’ when Southern states imposed voting fees, to discourage blacks from voting. About 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID and many people in rural areas have trouble accessing ID offices. Obtaining photo ID can be costly and burdensome. While many states with strict laws offer a free state ID, these require documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25. Researchers found that states with a strict photo ID law saw a significant decrease in turnout among minority and immigrant voters and an increased gap between white and non-white voters.
Some states are also trimming back or eliminating measures which bolster electoral participation by minority and younger voters. Eight states have enacted new laws cutting back on early voting days and hours. In 2013, North Carolina reduced early voting days from 17 to 10, ended the ability to register and cast a vote on the same day and abolished a pre-registration programme for 16- and 17-year-olds. But one of the major barriers to universal suffrage is the disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners.
The Constitution permits states to adopt rules about disenfranchisement ‘for participation in rebellion, or other crime’ [our emphasis], by the Fourteenth Amendment. Individual states themselves decide which crimes could be grounds for disenfranchisement so laws vary from state to state. There were 1.2 million in 1976 denied the right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement. In 2008 over 5.3 million people. Nationally in 2012, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions.
Due to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this has resulted in one in every thirteen African Americans unable to vote. The disenfranchisement of felons was used by Southern states combined with other tactics to neutralise the black electorate, in the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment, which ostensibly guaranteed African Americans the vote. A study found that the larger the state’s black population, the more likely the state was to pass the most stringent laws that permanently denied people convicted of crimes the right to vote. In three states (Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia) by 2014, more than one in five black adults were disenfranchised. Very different from Maine and Vermont where there is no significant black population and who have placed no restrictions on voting rights for people convicted and actually allow inmates to vote from prison (something the UK still doesn’t.)
Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in civic life. Conditions have improved for at least 200,000 Virginian ex-felons who have served their time and had their right to vote restored by the Governor. He explained, ‘These individuals have completed their sentences. They have atoned for their actions. They live, work and raise families in communities all across the commonwealth, and they will continue to contribute to our communities, but they now will do it with the full rights of citizens.’
The socialist position upon all this is that we can fully expect sections of the ruling class to gerrymander elections to protect their interests but as long as the system is sufficiently democratic to provide a mandate from the majority and reflect the will of the majority then we will make use of what exists, warts and all.