Voting Restrictions: Do Political Games Eclipse Issues of Political and Social Justice?
by Chelsea Jack | University of Virginia
Voting represents one of our most ritualized forms of participatory democracy. It’s a point of pride. When you go to the polls, you walk out with a small sticker or button pinned to your shirt to let others know that you personally played your part and that someone in the Federal machine will hear your voice.
Therefore, it comes as no shock when heads turn (and start to roll) when certain individuals and political parties drive initiatives to subtly, yet very noticeably, disenfranchise Americans by making that trip to the voting booth just a little more burdensome through the imposition of voting restrictions. For the outraged, it’s not just an assault on democratic ritual and our pride as Americans, but a real threat against our constitutionally protected rights. All very understandable, but the real question is this: will the most recent media storm created by the deluge of legal voting restrictions bring to mind the out-of-sight, yet equally heinous and flagrant, instances of political disenfranchisement wracking our democratic system?
Recently, pundits and talk show personalities, most notably Jon Stewart, caught wind of the ever-augmenting list of restrictive voting qualifications passed into law since 2011, specifically voter ID requirements and early voting restrictions. But oddly enough, Stewart points out, the GOP engineered a more than significant chunk of these restrictions. He goes on to theorize that the GOP hopes to use tactics like photo ID restrictions and the elimination of early voting on weekends to chip away at Democratic enfranchisement and win several key swing states, like Pennsylvania and Ohio, both of which implemented new restrictive measures.
Stewart then directs audiences to a video montage of studies verifying that in fact these restrictions will disproportionately affect individuals within demographics most often affiliated with Democratic sympathies:
“The young, the old, the poor, minorities! The four Horsemen of the Democalapyse!” Stewart jibes.
The fact is that 180 voting restrictions have been introduced in 41 states, with 25 restrictive laws actually passing in 19 different states since 2011, according to the Brennan Center for Justice of NYU Law. Within the context of the favorite buzzword, voter identification, the number of states requiring government-issued photo identification quadrupled in 2011.
Although none of this data is particularly glamorous, the fact of the matter is that eleven percent of Americans, or 21 million citizens, lack a government-issued photo ID, and, yes, that percentage creeps up even higher when you start looking at students, people of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income voters. This is all true and all reprehensible, but why this battle? Why this much attention from all our favorite talking heads when members from both parties fail to address injustices done to politically marginalized individuals every day in this country? For the past year, different outlets have correctly identified the “GOP War on Voting” coming to life, but why make this about petty political games when we would do far better to focus on casting stones at all perpetrators of political and social injustice?
For example, no one seems to be considering the injustices done to millions of ex-felons systematically discriminated against and deprived of their voting rights, sometimes permanently. Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, spends her life’s work shedding light on the American prison-industrial complex, which currently holds over two million people behind bars with millions more on parole or probation. In her book, she specifically addresses the mass incarceration of African American males that has led to a thriving racial caste in America, in lieu of past forms of discrimination and segregation, such as Jim Crow.
Well, how does this relate to suffrage? The millions of people locked away with felony convictions, most of whom are black men, are unable to vote in America – this is not the case in other countries with Western democracies.
“But here in the U.S., we seem to take the idea of democracy a bit less seriously,” Alexander says in an interview from earlier this month with Truthout, “and people are denied the right to vote not only when they are in prison, but also upon release in many states.”
In fact, Alexander says, 1 in 7 black men are either temporarily or permanently deprived of their voting rights as a result of felony convictions, convictions that may or may not have been justly administered. Another issue for another time.
But no one really pays attention to the fact that 10.42 percent of the voting age population has been disenfranchised thanks to felony convictions, regardless of whether or not they’ve done their time, if you choose to look at it that way; and certainly no one pays attention to the staggering fact that 23.32 percent of African Americans were disenfranchised in Florida due to felony convictions, many of whom, as of March 2011, will never have their voting rights restored after the system brands them forever as second-class citizens.
The political disenfranchisement perpetrated within the prison-industrial complex under our watch represents one of the most embarrassing failings for participatory democracy in America. 5.85 million people lost their right to vote due to felony convictions as of 2010, and, despite how you feel about felons voting while behind bars, it’s beyond shameful that our country would deprive many ex-felons of constitutionally protected rights once the prison system has unceremoniously spat them back out into society.
The point: the capacity for certain pundits or talk show hosts to politicize choice injustices dictates how in vogue select issues, such as voter identification requirements, are in our daily conversations and our late-night television fix. This happens even when equally odious and, go figure, more complex social and political injustices, like the disenfranchisement of black men within our prison system, linger in our midst, ones that leave us dumbfounded when we can’t simply point an incriminating finger in one particular direction.Chelsea Jack is a junior at the University of Virginia where she is double-majoring in Anthropology and Political and Social Thought.