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“Should Voting Be A Choice?”: Voter Non-Participation Is A Giant Pimple On The Face Of American Democracy

President Obama gave a rather unusual answer to a question about money in politics during an event in Cleveland this week. His antidote for the burgeoning influence of fat stacks of Supreme Court-sanctioned cash on elections was fairly simple: make everyone vote.

“If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country,” he said, adding that voting was mandatory in other countries. Universal participation would “counteract money more than anything.”

He might have a point.

Voter participation–or, more accurately, non-participation–is a giant pimple on the face of American democracy, one that the U.S. been unable to pop since the 1960s.

Every two years, an average of 56 percent of eligible voters (PDF) participate in their own self-governance, weighed heavily towards presidential contests. Midterms usually draw around 40 percent, putting 2014’s dismal effort only slightly below average.

Line that up next to other industrialized democracies and it’s not pretty. Great Britain usually gets around three quarters of its population to the polls in national elections.

Greece, the birthplace of democracy and modern geopolitical punchline, gets 86 percent. Australia’s citizens turn out in droves, averaging a 95 percent turnout down under.

How do the Aussies do it? Quite simply, they make their citizens vote–or at least show up.

They are forced to register, forced to appear at a polling station on Election Day, and forced to at least make a mark on the ballot paper. By law, they don’t actually have to choose a candidate or party, but you’d imagine the phrase “might as well” applies here.

Australia, cited by the president in his Wednesday remarks, is not the only country with compulsory voting, and not the only one to see strong turnout. Argentina has it, and usually sees around 85 percent participation. Brazil does too, and usually turns out at a rate around 80 percent. All of these are enforced compulsory systems: that is, there is a penalty (normally a fine) if a citizen cannot reasonably explain why they did not vote.

Now, none of those three are examples of ideal democratic outcomes at present, but at least they have robust participation. The United States faces a formidable participation gap, partly because, quite frankly, not enough people care.

But the U.S. has also been doing all the wrong things, policy-wise, for decades.

Rather than make it easier to vote, lawmakers here have been putting up barriers to participation.

New York and Ohio eliminated same-day voter registration in 1965 and 1977 respectively. According to political scientist Marjorie Random Hershey, turnout dropped by 7 percent in the subsequent elections and between 3 and 5 percent over the longer term (PDF). Many states have imposed early closing dates for registration, and if there were no closing date (in other words, same-day registration), some experts “estimate that…turnout would increase by 6.1 percent” across the nation. Early voting has also been scaled back in a number of states, including Ohio and North Carolina, where 7 in 10 black Americans vote early.

Then there are Voter ID laws, passed to combat the largely mythical phenomenon known as voter fraud.

To start, voter fraud does not exist in any significant sense. Out of the 197 million votes cast in federal elections between 2000 and 2005, only 26 (yes, twenty-six) votes eventually resulted in convictions for voter fraud. That is .00000013 percent, and it indicates that no one committing voter fraud could have affected any federal election in any way during that time.

Yet eight states have strict photo ID requirements to vote, and a further six have strict non-photo ID policies. And these policies can suppress the vote.

Hershey’s study cites Vercellotti and Anderson’s (2006), which found that “non-photo and photo ID rules were associated with lower turnout in 2004, in the range of 3 to 4 percent.” Laws enacted in Kansas and Tennessee dropped turnout by 2 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office. Texas’s policies, some of the most restrictive in the nation, were also heavily scrutinized after the 2014 election.

All of these figures are across the demographic board, leaving aside that these policies have been accused of being partisan and discriminatory, disproportionately affecting minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Voter ID is just the latest in a long line of counterproductive policies when it comes to the ballot box. The suppression numbers associated are not huge, but there is a pile-on effect.

That’s because the decision to vote is an economic one. There’s an element of civic duty or pride, sure, but the individual essentially conducts a cost–benefit analysis with regard to how they spend their time and money. The more obstacles that are put in the way of voter participation, from restricting early voting to banning voting out-of-district to requiring IDs (which cost time and money to procure), the higher the opportunity cost and the fewer people will vote.

The end result is that the laws and regulations governing voting in some states are thoroughly undemocratic.

Thankfully, though, the U.S. is not some sort of uniformly hopeless electoral dystopia. Some states are making progress. Oregon, along with more recent converts Washington and Colorado (the Civic-Minded Stoner Bloc) has conducted all mail-in voting for years. All enjoyed turnouts of 64 percent turnout or higher in 2012, well above the national average, with Colorado at 71 percent.

This week, Oregon crossed into new territory in its efforts to get out the vote. Under the new policy, all eligible voters will be registered automatically unless they opt out. Now the Oregon secretary of state’s office will mail all voting-age citizens a ballot 20 days before any election. They need only send it back with a few marks of a pen.

Oregon’s is a step in the right direction, emphasizing ease of voting over mandates. Compulsory voting does not hold all the answers–though some political scientists credit it with as much as double-digit gains in turnout percentage–and there are other ways to avoid ghastly-looking turnout numbers. After all, Britain and Greece are doing just fine without it. Belgium, where mandatory voting policies have not been enforced since 2003, averages 90 percent turnout.

Though it would likely bring more people to the polls, it’s not immediately clear how, as the president says, mandatory voting would combat money’s influence on American politics. Maybe he’s hoping that the few people whose lives aren’t consumed by political advertisements in the run-up to Election Day–that is, who don’t own a TV or computer–would show up. Maybe his roots in community organizing tell him there’s strength in numbers, that there’s power to be found in the kind of mass participation by informed citizens that is simply lacking today.


By: Jack Holmes, The Daily Beast, March 20, 2015

March 21, 2015 Posted by | Democracy, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pointing The Way To A New, More Offensive Effort”: Could Oregon’s Voting Law Signal A Democratic Push To Open Up Elections?

This is apparently what happens when a Democratic secretary of state — the kind in charge of elections, not the kind in charge of diplomacy — unexpectedly becomes her state’s governor:

On Monday, Oregon became the first state that will automatically register voters using information collected at the DMV.

Anyone eligible will be given an opportunity to opt out — but otherwise they become registered voters. The administration estimates that about 300,000 people will be added to the rolls, increasing the number of registered voters from 2.2 million to 2.5 million.

Federal law already requires states to allow people to register to vote while filling out paperwork for a driver’s license. Oregon’s new law will make the process automatic.

Democrats have felt no end of frustration over the spread of voter ID laws, not only because they disenfranchise huge numbers of people in the name of solving an essentially imaginary problem (in-person voter impersonation), but also because they seem almost impossible to stop. The Supreme Court has approved ID laws multiple times, even ones that are nakedly partisan, and voter ID laws are now in effect in 31 states. Republicans have also tried other ways to make registration and voting as difficult as possible, including restricting early voting. But other than mounting traditional registration and education drives and challenging new laws in court, Democrats haven’t come up with too many ways to fight back.

But Oregon could be pointing the way to a new, more offensive effort on Democrats’ part. Instead of just trying to counter Republican voting restrictions, they could find new ways to open up the voting system and get more people to the polls. This law doesn’t completely solve the problem of the unregistered (it only reaches people who have gone to get driver’s licenses or other ID from the DMV), but it goes a long way in that direction.

And critically, the Oregon law begins from the premise that everyone should be part of the electorate, and if they aren’t, then policy ought to be changed. Under the new law, you can opt out of registration if you want, but the default is that you’ll be registered. The implicit assumption behind Republican restrictions is that voting isn’t a right but a privilege, one you have to earn by jumping through a series of hoops.

We all know why that is: When you make registering and voting inconvenient or difficult, a certain number of potential voters will be eliminated from the pool, and those voters — whether because they’re younger or poorer or more minority — are more likely to vote for Democrats. You could argue that on the flip side, Democrats who want to make registering and voting easier are just as motivated by their partisan interest. Which may be true — as Sean McElwee details, a variety of studies have found that the non-voting population is substantially more liberal than the population that actually votes. But it’s still in Democrats’ favor that unlike Republicans, they’re not trying to restrict anyone’s rights in order to accomplish their goal.

Republicans claim — sometimes even without giggling — that their only concern is the integrity of the ballot and they never even consider the possibility that ID requirements will benefit their partisan interests. So they ought to be taken at their word. If we put enough effort into it, there’s no reason we couldn’t have a system that was secure and made fraud extremely difficult, but also made voting the default option. Ten states use same-day registration, which makes voting much easier, and they haven’t been overwhelmed by fraud. We ought to be able to come up with more ideas for making voting easier without sacrificing security.

Just imagine if elections were about which party or candidate was more appealing, and not about who could get more of their voters to the polls while discouraging the other party’s supporters from turning out. That would be quite something.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, March 17, 2015

March 20, 2015 Posted by | Democracy, Elections, Oregon, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Myth Of Voter Fraud”: Persists Because It Is A Racialized Weapon In A Power Struggle Over The Soul Of American Democracy

When there has been election fraud in American elections, it has usually been committed by politicians, party operatives and election officials who have something at stake in electoral outcomes. Voters rarely commit fraud because for them, it is a motiveless crime, the individual benefits to the fraudulent voter are immaterial, while the costs are prohibitive.

The most important illustration of outright corruption of elections is the century-long success of white supremacists in the American South stripping African-Americans of their right to vote. Elites and party bosses in the urban North followed the Southern example, using some of the same tricks to manipulate electoral outcomes and to disfranchise immigrants and the poor.

From this perspective, the impact of election fraud on American elections has been massive. It was only with the rise of the Black Freedom Movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, that the tricks and political chicanery were halted. In fact, according to the political historian J. Morgan Kousser, the Voting Rights Act is the most important fraud-prevention legislation ever passed.

In response to these victories, a reactionary movement arose to push back against progress in civil rights and to counter the thrust toward a more equal society. Over the last 40 years, that movement has made important gains, especially in the courts, where a conservative Supreme Court, in a 2013 case called Shelby County v. Holder, gutted one of the most effective features of the Voting Rights Act – the “preclearance” formula which forced states and localities with the most egregious histories of vote denial to obtain permission from the Justice Department before putting new election rules in place.

Prior to the contested 2000 presidential election, only 14 states either requested or required that voters show some form of identification at the polls. Since then, the number of states requiring ID to vote has doubled and the forms of acceptable identification have narrowed. In what is likely no coincidence, the rate at which states have adopted tougher photo identification requirements accelerated with the election of the nation’s first black president and the demise of legally-mandated federal oversight in the Shelby case.

In rapid succession, partisan lawmakers in state after state have pushed through the new rules, claiming tougher identity checks are necessary to staunch or prevent voter fraud. And yet, in no state adopting a photo ID requirement has any lawmaker or anyone else, for that matter, presented a credible showing of a problem with voters corrupting the electoral process. In other words, if the claimed reason of preventing voter fraud is taken at face value, there is no rational basis for the policy intervention. So what is actually going on?

I think the phony claims and renewed political chicanery are a reflection of the fact that a century-and-a-half after the Civil War, and 50 years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, a deeper struggle for democracy, equality and inclusion continues. Beneath the skirmish over arcane voting rules is a fraught tension between our ideals and our fears, between what we profess to believe about the “sanctity” of the ballot, and racialized and class-based notions of worthiness embedded in the question of who is to be a citizen in the United States.

The myth of voter fraud persists because it is a racialized weapon in a power struggle over the soul of American democracy. To see this, we must set our current politics in a historical context. Long-standing fears about unworthy citizens polluting and distorting electoral outcomes are the underside of the usual celebratory story we like to tell ourselves of a progressive struggle for voting rights. In fact, the struggle has not unfolded in a linear fashion. Each successive advance has generated counter-movements rooted in alternative and reactionary histories aimed at “taking back” at least a part of what has been lost. In our own time, from the moment blacks began exercising their newly (re-)won right to vote, that right was undermined in ways that constrained its power to deliver social justice. The question of who is to be a citizen in our racially divided and injured society remains unresolved.


By: Lorraine C. Minnite, Director of the Urban Studies Program at Rutgers University–Camden: Bill Moyers Blog, Moyers and Company, March 9, 2015

March 12, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Democracy, Voter Fraud, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Next Attack On Voting Rights”: Why Democrats Should Fight For A Constitutional Right-To-Vote Amendment

The last round of voter restrictions came after the 2010 Republican wave, when new GOP majorities passed voter identification laws and slashed ballot access in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. Now, three months after the 2014 Republican wave, another class of state lawmakers are prepping another assault on voting rights under the same guise of “uniformity” and “ballot integrity.”

In Georgia, reports Zachary Roth for MSNBC, Republicans are pushing a bill to slash early voting from the present maximum of 21 days to 12 days. The goal, says Rep. Ed Rydners, a sponsor of the proposal, is “clarity and uniformity.” “There were complaints of some voters having more opportunities than others,” he said, “This legislation offers equal access statewide.” If cities like Atlanta want to have more voting access, said Rydners, they could open more precincts and “pay to have poll workers present.”

In Missouri, this new push comes as a constitutional amendment overturning a 2006 ruling from the state Supreme Court, which struck down voter ID as illegal under the state’s Constitution. Last Wednesday, notes Roth, the state’s House of Representatives gave “initial approval” to two measures: “One would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot asking voters to allow voter ID, and the other would implement the ID requirement, should the amendment pass.” The rationale? Voter fraud. “It’s not disenfranchising voters,” says state Sen. Will Kraus, who sponsored the amendment. “Voters who vote multiple times are diluting their vote.”

In New Hampshire, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans are aiming for a hat trick of voter restrictions. If signed into law, their bills would limit voter registration efforts and reduce other registration opportunities, make it harder for students to register and vote, and reduce the number of precincts open per voter, a move that would lengthen voting lines and make the process a greater chore for working people and others with difficult schedules.

Likewise, per the Brennan Center, Mississippi Republicans are pursuing a bill that would “decrease the likelihood that otherwise-eligible voters who cast provisional ballots will have their votes counted in the races for which they are eligible,” and in Indiana, lawmakers have introduced measures to end automated straight-ticket voting and “secure” absentee ballots by requiring a voter identification number. “I just think people need to take the time to learn about who they are voting for before going in rather than just pushing a button for straight party,” said Rep. Milo Smith, chair of the Indiana House Elections Committee. “I think that makes for a better election process.”

It’s always worth noting the scant evidence for these moves. In Missouri, for instance, the Brennan Center found only four cases of in-person voter fraud, for a “documented fraud rate” of 0.0003 percent. There is no problem to solve; the policy rationale for limiting registration drives or requiring photo identification—instead of a standard-issue registration card—doesn’t exist. And if it did, there’s no reason for a restrictive approach; automatic registration and free ID cards are just as effective as anything proposed by state and federal Republicans.

Politically, however, there’s a lot to gain from these laws. Every new barrier to voting makes it harder for the most marginal voters to get to the polls. And given the demographics of voting—the least frequent voters are poorer, browner, and less educated than their most frequent counterparts—it’s in the Republican Party’s interest to shrink the electorate as much as possible.

It’s the undeniable partisanship of new voter laws that explains the new “right-to-vote” plank in the platform of the Democratic National Committee. At its winter meeting last week, the DNC endorsed a constitutional amendment for the affirmative right to vote. “The Democratic Party stands for inclusion, and we know that we are all better when everyone has a voice in the democratic process. The right to vote is a moral imperative, and I am proud to support this resolution,” said DNC Vice Chair of Voter Expansion and Protection Donna Brazile in a statement.

Readers with an eye toward the Constitution might say that we already have a right to vote. “The right of citizens of the United States 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,” says the 15th Amendment, ratified 145 years ago this month. There’s also the 14th Amendment, which treats the individual right to vote as sacrosanct barring crime or rebellion.

But notice the language. The 15th Amendment forbids governments from denying or abridging the right to vote on the basis of identity, but it says nothing about obstacles to exercising the franchise. And while the 24th Amendment forbids poll taxes and other racialized barriers to voting, the Constitution is mum on race-neutral disenfranchisement. Put differently, the Constitution allows voter suppression as long as it doesn’t trip any of its race or gender wires.

The goal of a right-to-vote amendment is to change the dynamic and place the burden on restrictionists. In a sense, it would make the pre–Holder v. Shelby Voting Rights Act a standard for the entire country. States and localities would have to make voting as accessible as possible, with a high standard for new barriers.

And while the odds of winning a right-to-vote amendment are low—one reason Democrats should invest more effort in state elections—there’s tremendous value in mobilizing around the issue. A movement for a right-to-vote amendment could encourage laws and norms that expand participation irrespective of an amendment in that direction. Think of it as a liberal counterpart to the “personhood” amendments used to mobilize anti-abortion conservatives around smaller—but just as potent—limits to abortion rights.

Indeed, if she hasn’t, Hillary Clinton should take notice of this DNC resolution. To win in 2016, Clinton will have to repeat Obama’s performance with black Americans and other minorities. Building that enthusiasm won’t be easy, but something like a right-to-vote proposal could help her start that fire.


By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, February 25, 2015

February 26, 2015 Posted by | U. S. Constitution, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rights Not Safeguarded Can Be Eroded Or Lost”: Nation’s Voting Rights Laws Headed In Wrong Direction

One of the most painful scenes in Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest marches in Selma, Ala., shows nurse Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, being turned away from registering to vote because she can’t name the state’s 67 county judges. Such ploys to block black people from voting were used in the South even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They ensured that unequal laws and systems endured, since elected officials were answerable only to the whites who had elected them. It took the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to make that civil right binding. Yet today that victory that legions of volunteers fought for is under attack.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Texas law to require voters to show photo ID cards. The law had been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and struck down by a federal judge who said 600,000 registered voters in Texas had no government-issued ID, and that African-Americans were thrice as likely as whites to not have one. But the law was upheld by a federal Court of Appeals. Texas found ammunition in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder, striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing voting procedures. Various states have responded with new voting restrictions.

“If you live in rural Mississippi, and you have no license, you have no ID,” says Patti Miller, who just completed a documentary about the role of Iowans in the 1964 Freedom Summer. She noted that Hispanics in urban areas face the same problem.

Iowans Return to Freedom Summer, depicts five young white people, including Miller, who grew up in overwhelmingly white Iowa and answered a call from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to aid desegregation efforts in Mississippi. They were among 700 college students from around the country who flocked to Mississippi to help register black voters, teach black children in Freedom Schools and organize community centers. The experiences were life changing.

“I’m not sure if that sense of purpose has happened since,” reflected Miller at a preview of her film Monday. “It affects everything you do, your attitudes and outlook on life.”

For Marcia Moore, one of the Freedom Summer volunteers, seeing how hard Mississippi fought to keep black people down brought tough reckonings about her own country. Richard Beymer (who subsequently played Tony in West Side Story) found that summer a joyful time, even though “we were at war, in a sense.” He lived with seven other civil rights workers in a rented house without indoor toilet or shower, all resolute about confronting racism. Stephen L. Smith never fully got over a severe beating at the hands of Mississippi police. Yet he remained politically active, becoming the first American to burn his draft card. All reflect on their experiences in Miller’s film.

There were disagreements within SNCC about including white students, Miller recalls. “A lot felt it should be only blacks. But whenever white people were involved, the press covered it.”

The white students’ activism also “lit a fire” that prompted black people to start protesting, observes Lenray Gandy, a black Mississippi native, in Miller’s film. The movie depicts a Mississippi that didn’t just force blacks and whites to use separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms, but where black people weren’t allowed to try on shoes at the shoe store. A black man couldn’t walk down a street where a white woman was walking. Blacks couldn’t sit in the front of a bus and were expected to keep their eyes downcast when addressing whites.

But the deprivation that ensured all the others stayed in place was being unable to vote. Registrars would use a 95-question test to reject prospective black voters, according to Shel Stromquist, now a professor emeritus from the University of Iowa who took part in Freedom Summer and appears in the film.

Miller formed the Keeping History Alive Foundation because, as the saying goes, those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But remembering may not be the problem for politicians enacting current voting restrictions. More likely they see some political advantage to suppressing the minority vote. So the question is whether fair-minded Americans will insist that Congress pass legislative fixes to ensure all qualified Americans have their voices heard.

Miller will forever be affected by the power of committed black and white people living, cooking, eating, working and risking their lives together. She went on to work with King’s organization in Chicago. So it’s disheartening for her to visit college campuses these days and see black and white students self-segregate in dining halls.

It’s easy to get complacent about battles won long ago. But rights not safeguarded can be eroded or lost. Celebrating King’s birthday, as we do this week, shouldn’t just mean reflecting on how far we’ve come, but on where we’re going, and what it will take to stay on track.


By: Rekha Basu, The National Memo, January 21, 2015

January 22, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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