Voting Discrimination in the Twenty-First Century

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Voting is a right that is given to Americans that allows them to express their opinions. This gives power to the people, allowing them to make influential decisions that help shape the future of the country. However, this given right is not always so accessible for some. People of color often experience much difficulty in many societal aspects, including voting. Many are forced to overcome strenuous barriers in order to have the same accessibility to something that is so freely handed to others. All throughout history, people of color have been the scapegoat of society, often being blamed and excluded based on their physical features. Although voting discrimination has been deemed illegal, it is still a major problem in society.

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Voting rights have not always been equal to all in the United States. In the 1789, only white men who owned property were allowed to cast a vote, excluding women, African Americans, Indians, and Native Americans. African Americans, Indians and Natives were considered property, and therefore stripped of any rights shared with those who were white. As history progressed, some voting rights were given to people of color, but were hardly equal. In the late 19th century, people of color could only vote if they paid high poll taxes, or passed extremely rigorous literacy tests, which often times couldn’t even be rightfully completed by most white Americans. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s that started to initiate equal voting rights for people of color. Then, in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, giving whites and blacks the same voting rights in America. This act made it illegal for any discrimination to take place against people of color in all voting processes. Prior to 1965, the right to vote was heavily discriminatory, making it nearly impossible for people of color to vote. However, even though the legal voting requirements from the Jim Crow Era have been outlawed, some believe that the voting policies that are being passed today are regressing the country’s progress. Although the right to vote is now a legal right for all citizens in the United States, discrimination against some does indeed still occur, particularly for people of color.

One of the main tactics that is still being used today is called “voter disenfranchisement.” This strategy is used to target minority groups, especially African Americans and Latinos. Disenfranchisement occurs when eligible voters are refused from being able to cast a vote. Eligible voters can be disenfranchised by the force of law, called “de jure” disenfranchisement. One legal and surprisingly common form of this is called “felony disenfranchisement” laws. In the year 2000, a “purge” was conducted in order to disable thousands of people from voting. Before the election, the state of Florida sent out a list of alleged felons to the election supervisors, revoking the right to vote for over 58,000 citizens. This law was first created in 1868 and targeted newly emancipated African Americans to prohibit them from having the same rights as whites. Enslaved African Americans were more likely to be arrested than white people because of the laws set against them. Offenses included, for instance, looking at a white woman. Of all of the voters in the state of Florida, African Americans made up only 11%; of the 58,000 people included on the list in year 2000, 44% were African American. Soon after, Florida was sued for violating the Voting Rights Act. During the investigation, it was revealed that 12,000 voters were wrongly accused of being a felon, and therefore were not allowed to vote. The U.S Civil Rights Commission stated that, out of all of the Florida ballets that were not counted, 53% were cast by black voters. According to the commission’s report, it was ten times more likely for a black voter to be rejected than a white voter. In addition, eligible voters can be disenfranchised due to false information, or given a reason to believe that they cannot vote. This phenomenon is termed “de facto” disenfranchisement. According to Jeff Manza, “1 of every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans…” In some states, these numbers increase to more than one-in-five. “Nearly 7.7 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population”.

Between the years 2005 and 2008, the ACLU of Northern California conducted a statewide survey to determine the awareness of state and local officials about the voting rights of individuals with criminal convictions. The results of this survey were unsettling, finding that the majority of California’s sheriff and probation departments and election officials had been providing incorrect or no information at all when asked about the voting rights of felons. In addition, the ACLU-NC study also found instances where language translators, especially Spanish translators, incorrectly translated information from these offices to people about voter’s rights.

Another tactic used to prevent the votes of colored people includes the manipulating of boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class. This is defined as “gerrymandering” and has been illegally practiced countless times through history. In June of 1995, the United States Supreme Court ruled Georgia’s 11th district unconstitutional during the case Miller v. Johnson, stating that race was the main decision factor when drawing up boundary lines. According to David Lublin, “the Supreme Court placed the entire racial redistricting strategy under a legal cloud by ruling in Miller v. Johnson that using race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines violates the Equal Protection Clause”. For instance, if a district is “packed”, and 50% of the people in one district polling center is African American, it then limits their influence on surrounding districts. If they are all grouped into one district, then they only get one representative, whereas if they were more spread out, they could be better represented. David Canon, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said, “If you have too high a percent African Americans in a House district, it does dilute the overall representation of African American interests.” Packing a district with 50% African Americans also allows the remaining districts to be overwhelmed with white people, making it extremely unproportioned and unequal. Many people think that, if African Americans were more spread out, their vote would be overwhelmed by whites in all districts, and therefore could actually make it worse. However, white people are increasingly beginning to vote for candidates that are favored by minority groups. So, gerrymandering actually decreases the chance for a minority-favored candidate to be elected. This is a very sneaky tactic that has been used in many recent elections, such as the 2016 presidential election. According to the Associated Press analysis, there were four times as many House or Assembly districts as Democratic ones, and in states most populated, around three times more Republican-skewed House districts. Some of the states with high Republican advantages, such as Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, had their districts made out by Republicans. The analysis also showed that Republicans won 22 more house seats than what was expected based on voting averages of Congressional vote share across the country. John McGlennon, a professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary stated, “The outcome was already cooked in, if you will, because of the way the districts were drawn.”Voting discrimination isn’t always about moving district borders, or intimidating voters inside and out of the polls.

Sometimes, something as simple as requiring identification can be used to decide whose vote is actually counted. Recent voter identification requirements have been used to prevent certain people in different areas to vote. For example, states such as Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin have now initiated strict photo identification requirements. Other states, such as Arizona, North Dakota, and Ohio have also implemented uncompromising non-photo identification laws. Voter identification is more so used as a guise to prevent voter fraud, even though it is no longer a pressing issue in the country. For example, President Donald Trump has made many claims of increasing, country-wide voter fraud, which persuaded the nation that the US was in need of better voting security measures. A study performed by News21 detested his unsupported claims. They found that from the years 2000 to 2012, there were only 10 cases of legitimate voter fraud country-wide. The decision over whether or not strict voter identification is actually needed became a nation-wide controversy. Multiple studies have also found that not everyone is required to provide identification. In fact, people of color make up the majority of people being asked to provide identification and are often the ones being shut out of voting due to the strict voter laws and the follow-up laws if proper voter identification is not provided on Election Day. The Quarterly Journal of Political Science conducted a study in the city of Boston. “From the table we see that blacks and Hispanics were significantly more likely to be asked for ID than were whites of similar sex, education, and age”.

In some cases, states were failing to provide citizens with the correct voter identification needed in order to send a ballot. A group called Vote Riders (designed to help provide citizens with voter ID’s) conducted an investigation by sending volunteers to 10 DMV’s across the state of Wisconsin. According to the Nation, the results provided that only three out of the ten offices correctly informed the volunteers that they could quickly receive an ID without the need of paperwork and documents. Strict voter identification laws have been shown to decrease voter turnout by substantial amounts. In some cases, voters cannot participate in voting due to the lack of identification. A study conducted by the California Institute of Technology found that “…increasing the strength of voter identification requirements, on average, decreases the probability of turning out to vote”. Shocking new evidence has shown that polling centers around the country have been found guilty of voter intimidation. Examples of voter intimidation would include aggressive and unreasonable questioning about one’s citizenship and criminal record, impersonating an election official, and having false requirements in order to vote. Federal law states, “No person … shall intimidate, threaten, coerce … any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of that person to vote or to vote as he may choose.” This illegal strategy is used to target minority groups, especially African Americans and Latinos, in the hopes that it will “scare” them away from voting or making them believe they can no longer vote. Some organizations, such as the FDLE, have gone so far as to discriminate against people in their own homes. In 2003, Florida was investigated for voter discrimination. According to Ralph Geas, armed, plain clothed officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were found guilty of questioning elderly black people in their homes on multiple occasions.

Guy Tunnell, the FDLE Commissioner claimed that “he wanted to make them feel more relaxed”, something they might not have been in an office setting. He also noted that this was the reason why the officers were not in full uniform. However, he failed to determine why the officers were still required to bear arms while interviewing elderly voters. Another example of voter intimidation occurred in June of 2004. During South Dakota’s primary election, Native American voters were prevented from voting after they were stopped by poll workers and told that they had to provide photo identification. Prior to this election, anyone without a photo ID was allowed to sign an affidavit instead. It was later found that photo identification was not legally required to present under state or federal law. Similar cases occurred all over the country, including the state of Texas. Oliver Kitzman, a local district attorney, claimed that students at Prairie View A&M University (a majority black college in Texas) were not eligible to vote in the Waller county where the school was located. This prevented many from being able to travel to the next nearest polling site. Many cases of voter intimidation are reported every year and have been proven to decrease the number of votes from colored people.

Voter intimidation tries to prevent a vote by giving voters a reason to think that they can no longer vote, or by attempting to scare them from placing a vote. Sometimes, organizations will go so far as to blatantly provide completely wrong information to certain people. This strategy is called “misinformation” and has been reported in recent elections. For instance, during the election of 2008, Democrats in the state of Nevada received phone calls telling them that they could come back to vote on November 5th, the day after the real election day. They assured them that the election sites would still be open, and they could avoid long lines by coming in the day after. However, when voters came back to place their vote, they found that the polling centers were indeed not open. It was also reported that Hispanics were receiving similar phone calls and being told that they could vote over the phone. Their votes were not actually being recorded. Voters in Lake County, Ohio received fake mail, informing them that anyone who registered to vote through democratic organizations would not be allowed to cast a vote in the 2008 elections. They have been many cases of misinformation being given to certain groups of people in order to block their vote from being recorded. In addition to voter intimidation, polling centers in the United States have also limited the amount of available polling centers in strategic areas. In 2008, the legislature for the state of Indiana passed a law that limited the early voting poll centers to 1 in counties with over 325,000 people. Only three counties in Indiana have over 325,000 people, and these three counties account for over 72% of the African American population in the state. In 2013, the United States Supreme Court voted out part of the Voters Rights Act. As a result, states have passed more voter restrictions, including decreasing the amount of poll centers in order to prevent some from voting. Since then, 868 polling centers have closed in the Southern states alone, and countless others have been closed across the nation. The closure of so many polling centers increases the number of voters per one polling center, thus, preventing many Americans from voting due to the extremely long lines. It also decreases the availability of polling centers, requiring citizens to travel farther in order to place a vote. This tactic particularly targets minority groups in the Southern states due to the fact that they may have less access to vehicles and public transportation. According to Mark Niesse, 39 of the counties with decreased polling centers have poverty rates that are higher than the state average. Thirty counties have large African-American populations, making up at least 25 percent of all residents in the county. Helen Butler, executive director for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, says, “Look at the areas where they’re closing precincts and consolidating. It’s usually in areas with poor people and minority communities that have less resources to get to other locations”.

Although the integration of this new method into state vote centers has had a huge impact on who exactly gets to vote, it is not technically considered illegal. The reason provided for these closures is to “cut down on budget spending” come election time. However, it isn’t hard to see the inequality and uneven proportionality of the closures in particular states, especially those who happen to be largely populated by minority groups. There are many legal tactics used in voting in order to sway the votes placed by people of color. Like the closure of polls, the changing of election dates is legal, if in compliance with the law. This is a very popular method and is used to decrease the minority vote by changing the election date to a time when there are fewer recorded minority voters. A recent example of this was in July, the summer before the 2012 presidential election. Most counties hold their election days in the fall, sometime during the first few weeks of November. However, in the year 2012, Augusta Alabama decided to switch their election day from November sixth to sometime in July, making it harder for minorities to travel to the voting polls due to the summer weather conditions, and their lack of vehicles and access to transportation.

Although this method is legal, is it quite obvious that the intentions were anything but pure. Evidence shows that African Americans are 55% less likely to vote in the summer months, particularly July, than in November. This effort was originally blocked by the Voting Rights Act, which stated the harm that would be caused to the minority groups, particularly African Americans. However, in 2013, the US Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, making it completely legal to change election dates. According to Adam Liptak, this new revision to the Voting Rights Act allowed nine states, almost all in the South, to change their election laws without federal approval.

The new revision also made it legal for polling centers to change their location without federal approval. In 2016, Ohio also cut out the “golden week”, a week where voters can register to vote as well as cast a vote at the same time. Ohio’s Senate Bill 238 also changed the election days from 35 days the only 29. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that evidence showed a disproportionate number of Golden Week participants were African Americans. One expert noted that black voters were 3.5 times more likely than white voters to vote during Golden Week in 2008, and 5 times more likely in 2012. It also showed that 19 percent of African Americans voted early in the Golden week, compared to only 6.2 percent of white voters in 2008. In 2012, it was found that 19 percent of African Americans voted early, while only 9 percent of white people took part in early voting.

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