The Party Not Everyone Is Invited To

By Tracy Kronzak Nov 04, 2008

Most of today’s elections coverage has been focused on the inadequacies of the polling system to handle the actual number of eligible voters who turned out and the various glitches and flaws in mechanical and electronic voting systems. It’s likely that many voters across the spectrum today, especially in battleground states, got their first taste of what happens when a system supposed to empower you fails to do its job. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow likened these long lines to a new poll tax, where people who simply can’t afford to wait in line for 2, 5 or even 8 hours simply don’t vote. These are important topics, but they only tell half a story. The other half is about the people who won’t be able to vote at all, regardless of how long the lines are. Voting enfranchisement is such an old issue that it has lost some of its appeal on the Left and a lot of visibility in the mainstream. It’s hard to break into a mainstream consciousness that dictates "if I don’t break the law, I don’t need to worry," especially when discussing felony voting re-enfranchisement. But the truth is that many people whose votes are suppressed haven’t broken any laws, but rather have tried to break in to a system that wasn’t designed to accommodate them. * Indiana and Georgia now require current photo identification in order to vote, and 19 states in the past two years have considered proof of citizenship to accompany a voter registration. Burden of proof arguments don’t seem to hold water as the Supreme Court recently determined regarding obtaining current photo identification, and the new citizenship laws open arbitrary pathways for determining the eligibility of an individual to vote. * Other states are using Social Security information to screen potential voter registrations. The problem here is that your name and address on file with the Social Security Administration might not exactly match your name and address submitted with your voter registration form. This is especially prolific in Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio, along with Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. * Every state, except for Maine and Vermont, imposes some sort of restriction on the voting rights of former felons. Thirty-five states prevent parolees from casting a ballot, 30 bar people on probation, nine require a waiting period, and both Kentucky and Virginia have almost complete prohibitions. According to multiple sources, including the Brennan Center and the ACLU, the number of people ineligible to vote in the United States due to past felony convictions is approximately 5.3 million – a number that includes 13 percent of all Black men in the country. * A new tactic, although at this time widely-contested, has been challenging voter registrations who have had the homes foreclosed. And again, some of the highest foreclosure rates are in states such as Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio. What we’re seeing is a shift from overt voter suppression, widely-acknowledged to have taken place in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, towards employing existing laws in new and misguided ways. There has also been an uptick in laws designed to prevent "voter fraud" that may not actually exist. In 2007, the Brennan Center at the NYU School of Law released a report called "The Truth About Voter Fraud" that concluded voter fraud is highly over-reported and under-substantiated, and these kinds of laws actually lead to voter suppression more often than not. So, if Senator Obama loses this evening, bucking the trend of pollsters and voter turnout, will this be sufficient onus for the kind of voting system reform that places equity ahead of fear? If he wins, will the Democratic Party take the opportunity to charge into comprehensive voting reform so that the debacles we’ve seen in Florida, Ohio, and many other states will indeed be things of the past? One thing is for certain, that unless voting reform and re-enfranchisement is taken up as both an issue of racial equity and electoral fairness, we won’t see any changes that end modern-day Jim Crow tactics and felony disenfranchisement.