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“A Serious And Accessible Right For All”: America Is A Democracy; So Why Do We Make It Hard For Certain People To Vote?

Since I first registered to vote on my 18th birthday, I haven’t missed voting in a single election that I can remember. My feat has been nothing short of a pain in the ass, given that I have moved 14 times in the 19 years since.

This week, I almost failed to vote for the first time: I had moved – again – in the gap between the board of elections deadline to change my address and the New York state primary election. I did try to update my voter registration online, but didn’t receive a confirmation. I was confused if I was eligible to vote where I now live, or at the last address where I had been registered.

We don’t have same-day registration here in New York, so I steeled myself against the guilt and decided not to bother. But the guilt set in anyway: I saw on Facebook how many of my friends had voted; I felt the ghosts of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather prepare to raise up from the grave and beat my black behind for giving up so easily when they’d fought much harder challenges – like the Klan – to exercise their right to vote.

So I went down to what should be my precinct (and will be, once the change of address takes effect). My name wasn’t on the rolls, but because I was already a registered voter, I was allowed to fill out a provisional ballot. It wasn’t an easy process to navigate, it took a lot of time, and my vote may not even be counted.

Most people like me don’t have hours to spend voting by provisional ballot, as I did on Tuesday. And by “people like me”, I mean those of us who are somewhat fringe and move often. According to Demos, “Almost 36.5 million US residents moved between 2011 and 2012,” and “low-income individuals were twice as likely to move as those above the poverty line.”

Voter transience has a huge demographic effect on the electorate. As the Pew Center on the States explains:

About one in eight Americans moved during the 2008 and 2010 election years … Some Americans – including those serving in the military, young people, and those living in communities affected by the economic downturn – are even more transient. For example, census and other data indicate that as many as one in four young Americans moves in a given year.

“Mobility is the primary driver of problems with the voter lists,” David Becker, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ election initiatives, told me. “And there’s not any question that young people, and people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, are much more likely to be mobile.”

The causes of voter mobility are varied, from Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, to economic marginalization and gentrification and beyond. The population of people who move often, particularly in-state or in-town for economic reasons, would benefit most from “portable registration”, in which states would allow residents to remain properly registered as long as they stay in the state and without officially updating their records with the board of elections. As it stands now, one in four Americans already mistakenly believes, for example, that if you update your address with the post office, your voter registration information has been updated. (It hasn’t.)

With voting, “the onus is on the voter to register, and re-register” with the government, explained Becker – unlike Social Security, in which the onus is on the government to track citizens. Technology exists to allow individual election boards to similarly track voters’ moves – even just syncing voter rolls with, say, a state’s motor vehicle registration or drivers license database would be more efficient and cheaper, according to the Electronic Information Registration Center (Eric).

But, as Jonathan Brater, the counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, pointed out, people who are more transient “tend not to be homeowners, to be poorer, and to be non-white” – and, since they don’t vote as often, there’s little political will to make it easier for them to do so.

And so, the chaos and confusion – and low voter turn-out – will continue.

Universal American suffrage feels precarious: only 11 states and the District of Columbia are members of Eric; the federal government is still fighting the states over who gets to vote when, much as it did half a century ago; and, worst of all, the federal judicial branch has eviscerated the executive branch’s greatest tool, the Voting Rights Act.

Does America really care about making voting a serious and accessible right for all? Given the obsessive focus on voter ID initiatives aimed at minority communities in the absence of evidence of widespread voter fraud, and the myriad ways in which we make it difficult for the very young and the very old, the poor, the transient, those who served their time in our nation’s disgusting prison pipeline, the non-white, those who don’t speak perfect English and even members of the armed forces serving overseas (and their families) to vote, the answer, it seems, is no.

This nation, as much as we like to talk about it being a democracy, was at its inception as concerned with which residents it wanted to keep from participating in its democratic experiment as it was in the experiment at all. It is hard, when the average American moves every five years and has to reaffirm and defend their right to vote each time, to feel like very much has changed.


By: Steven Thrasher, The Guardian, September 12, 2014

September 14, 2014 - Posted by | Democracy, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights Act | , , , , ,

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