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Are American voters equally enfranchised?

Georgia Strong | United States Fellow

America has long been touted as the ‘land of the free, home of the brave’. Unfortunately, not all citizens are equally free when it comes to the right to vote.

In the 2016 US federal election, just 58.1 per cent of the voting-eligible population participated. This figure, in part, reflects the continuing disenfranchisement of low-income and minority voters.

Policies of disenfranchisement were widely legalised after the 2013 Shelby County v Holder Supreme Court decision. This decision nullified the requirement that states with a history of discrimination receive approval for changes in voting procedures. Since then, dozens of states have limited acceptable identification to one of 10 forms, including state driver’s licenses, US passports or military IDs. These laws impose a cost on eligible voters, who must pay a fee to acquire eligible ID. In many cases, these costs exceed the value of the original voter tax outlawed in 1965. Low-income voters are often unable to afford appropriate ID and are thereby forced to not participate in their state’s electoral process.

We know that voter participation determines the type of policies enacted. When fewer minority and low-income voters participate, politicians pander to the wants and needs of the remaining higher-income voters. Should these policies come into effect, they will deepen the divide between households along the same socio-economic and race lines. For example, 25 per cent of African Americans lack appropriate voter identification under current restrictions.

Although several states offer ‘free’ voter identification cards, voters are still required to produce several documents to prove their right to vote. Voters who do not already possess their naturalization or birth certificates can be faced with additional costs. However, an expansion of voter ID laws could break this cycle. By accepting public assistance cards as voter ID, low-income voters would be far more included in the electoral process. As such, elected representatives and policies would likely be expanded to reflect the ideas of all Americans equally.

Currently, the degree of voter enfranchisement experienced by an American citizen depends on their race and socio-economic situation. If you are a low-income African American voter in the South, you are far less enfranchised than your African American counterpart in Oregon, or your high-income white friend in the South. This relative degree of enfranchisement is important because exit polls show that more inclusive voter policies could have impacted the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election. Given that 88 per cent of African American voters supported Hillary Clinton, equal voting ability could have reduced the gap in voter support for each of the candidates, if not changed the election outcome.

The most obvious answer to this disenfranchisement would be to challenge it in the US court system. It would be expected that states adhere to Article XV of the US Constitution, which states that the right “to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. However, each state has interpreted the law differently. North Carolina’s strict photo ID laws were challenged and overturned as "the latest bad faith attempt… to impede the right to vote of African Americans and Latinos." However, similar laws remain in effect in Wisconsin and a watered-down version has been implemented in Texas.

This discussion is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of discriminatory voting practices. Factors such as the closure of polling booths in low socio-economic areas, early closing locations and technological-induced registration annulment further impede the ability for all American citizens to vote.

As the 2020 Presidential election approaches, COVID-19 adds another layer of concern regarding the close contact associated with ballot boxes, shared items and the compatibility of stay-at-home orders with voting. Unfortunately, some voters will not have the opportunity to engage in this discussion as their voices have already been silenced by voter requirements.

Georgia Strong is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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