Voting: The Achilles’ heel of American democracy

Voting: The Achilles’ heel of American democracy

America is the greatest demonstration of democracy the world has ever seen.  At the same time, it has transformed into the greatest demonstration of a broken democracy the world has ever seen.

The 2016 election saw a record voter turnout with 137.5 million voters.  However, according to an examination done by Pew Research, four in 10 Americans who were eligible to vote did not do so.  There are slightly over 209 million adults who hold United States citizenship, which means 209 million Americans have a Constitutional right to have their vote counted.  Why do a little less than half of the voter population decide to stay home in November?  Is it as simple as our democracy is accompanied by so much privilege that we neglect the responsibility to keep it?

Even though record voter turnout was recorded in the last federal election, black voter turnout declined for the first time in 20 years.  Pew Research included data showing it was the largest voter decline on record among blacks, and the largest decline among any racial group since 1992.  Latino nonvoters outnumbered Latinos who did vote in 2016, which is a pattern that has continued since 1996.  

There were 765,000 less black voters in 2016, which came after President Obama ran for a second term in 2012, and black voters outnumbered whites for the first time in U.S. history.  The obvious reasoning to this change is that black voters may possess more trust in an African-American candidate to relate to the struggles they face daily in a racially divided country.

However, there are three demographics that have consistently provided lower turnout rates than other groups in America.  These demographics can greatly increase participation in our democracy: young adults, people of color and people in low-income communities.  Nonvoters in 2016 were much more Democratic than Republican, which makes sense considering almost half of the Democratic party consists of people of color, many of whom come from low-income communities.  Young voters currently tend to lean more liberal too.  These demographics are critical to the Democratic party.  

Young voters

Young people vote significantly less than older generations for two main reasons; the electoral structure in America is very confusing, and there is an extreme lack of education surrounding civic participation.  According to a Time Magazine article, a new initiative in Sweden was developed in 2014 to increase voter turnout, and local governments were responsible for educating their civilians.  

A “Democracy Passport” was handed out to every citizen in local communities.  They looked like actual passports, but contained all Swedish voting laws and information regarding city, state and country level elections.  The roles of different levels of government, and the power each citizen has to influence each level, were also included.  Public libraries became “Democracy Centers” where citizens could get voting information, become educated on the subject matter and participate in civil discussions. 

Voting in 2018 local election. Photo by Faith Pitsikoulis.

Sweden stopped looking at citizens as members of political parties who pick sides, but members of communities who have a right to be involved with each decision pertaining to their way of life.  This form of respect and value given to Swedes has grown their trust in government,  increased voter turnout and led to better overall political discourse.  Sweden now has the second-highest voter turn-out rate in the world (Belgium legally requires all citizens to vote in elections).  They allow early voting and second voting – those who participated in early voting are able to change their vote come election day.  Citizens also have the right to vote by mail.  

Canada’s voting system automatically registers citizens when they turn 18 years old.  On election day, every Canadian is required by law to receive three consecutive hours off from work to vote, and those hours must be paid by employers.  These laws also make voting more accessible.

People of color

Voter suppression is the uncontrollable reason why some Americans do not vote.  They simply cannot.

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution states that no person shall be denied the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude,” and that Congress has the power to enforce this law through legislation.  

The Guardian found an expert survey that shows the U.S. ranks 57th in the world in electoral integrity, which is second to last among liberal democracies.  The article stated reasons for America’s low integrity at the ballot: partisan state legislatures, closed polling places, felon disenfranchisement and gerrymandering.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 stated the federal government was able to oversee voting changes in states that had poll taxes (a fee to vote) and literacy tests (a written exam to prove eligibility).  These barriers suppressed blacks from voting in the deep South.  However, the Supreme Court dismissed the act in 2013, allowing states to resort back to suppressing voters of color.  States have narrowed voting times and restricted registration.  

Wisconsin reinstated strict voter ID laws in 2016 to “fight voter fraud.”  However, studies consistently found no example of voter fraud in the state.  President Trump declared victory over former senator Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election by 22,000 votes in Wisconsin, but Milwaukee happened to have a 3% decrease in voter turnout that year.  The 41,000 fewer votes would have allowed the former senator to declare victory.  Similar to Wisconsin, 600,000 people lacked a voter ID in Texas that same year.

Cities across the U.S. are filled with low-income workers and people of color.  Suppression seems to be most damaging when counting votes in these places.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that 15% of citizens who earn less than $35,000 annually do not have some form of identification in the U.S.

The shockingly close senate race in 2018 between Senator Ted Cruz and former representative Beto O’Rourke might have had a different outcome if each Texan had the ability to vote.  A significant barrier in Texas allows gun permits to be used at the ballot, but not school IDs.

There have been 1,688 precinct closures since 2012.  Arizona has closed 320 polling places, making people share a singular precinct across counties.  Voters in low-income communities rely heavily on public transportation.  Therefore, decreasing the amount of polling places leads to harder access for people in low-income communities.

Felon disenfranchisement prevents 4.7 million citizens from voting.  Mass incarceration disproportionately affects African-Americans, which again is a significant demographic in the Democratic party.  Different states have different laws regarding their right to vote, but Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia disenfranchise felons for life.  A violation of the 15th amendment, discussed earlier as the right to not be denied the right to vote based on any previous servitude.  Main and Vermont are the only two states that do not restrict felons from voting in any way.  Pennsylvania law bars felons from voting as long as they are incarcerated.  

The Florida case Jones v. DeSantis began on April 27, 2020 over the phone due to COVID-19.  The trial’s outcome will decide whether or not to dissolve fines convicted felons are required to pay to vote once released from incarceration.  The case could enable felons to register and participate in upcoming elections free of charge.  In 2018, the state passed an amendment that lifted a ban on 1.4 million Floridians who have been charged with felonies (except those charged for murder or sex offenses).  Human Rights Watch has called both statutes violations of international human rights law.  In 2019, Florida continued to require felons to pay fees, leading to the current trial.

COVID-19

The global pandemic has put voter suppression at the forefront of the various issues facing our nation.  Primaries were held in Wisconsin in the middle of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.  Despite the governor’s executive order to push back the election for safety reasons, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin overruled the action.  

PA voting during COVID-19. Screenshot by Faith Pitsikoulis.

People stood outside for hours in long lines to cast their vote for the Democratic presidential candidate.  Essentially, Democratic voters were forced to choose between their safety and civic responsibility.  Pennsylvanians were able to avoid this choice and are allowed to vote by mail, or in person.

 Wisconsin’s health department claims 36 people who voted, or worked the polls, have now tested positive for the virus.  It is a number that is expected to keep growing as more tests are acquired by the governor.  

The push to vote by mail has been dismissed by legislators, but more and more Americans are supporting the idea for November.  Voting by mail has gained much more support from Democrats than Republicans, and President Trump has claimed that this method leads to crime and voter fraud.  The disapproval of postponing elections to safer dates, and finding alternative ways to participate, have many Americans curious.  Why does it seem the Republican party does not like when citizens vote?

During the Civil War, President Lincoln wanted soldiers to be able to exercise their constitutional right.  As a result, the 1864 election became the first example of widespread absentee voting in U.S. history.  NBC highlights the irony of how easier it is for a soldier in Afghanistan to vote at this moment than 95% of Americans who are at home, following CDC guidelines and staying inside.

Fair Fight

Former representative Stacey Abrams ran as the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race.  She lost by less than 55,000 votes to former senator Brian Kemp, but the race was highly controversial.  As secretary of state, Kemp enacted very strict voting requirements just months before the election.

Abrams did not concede.  She acknowledged that to concede means to agree with the fairness of the outcome.  Instead, she went on to start the Fair Fight organization.  It intends to “bring awareness to the public on election reform, advocates for election reform at all levels and engages in other voter education programs and communications.”

Fair Fight is standing up to the idea that our democracy was built to be accessed by all of us, not just some of us.  If you want to join the fight, go to https://fairfight.com/fair-fight-2020/.