The principle of “one man, one vote” is under threat in America. The idea that everyone is able to vote in a free and fair election is a core democratic value critical to uphold. Unfortunately, events over the past decade have shown us that this principle is under attack. Understanding what has happened is critical in determining how to move forward.
Voter disenfranchisement is a growing threat in this country, especially in an age where citizens are simultaneously living with a dangerous pandemic and grappling with a long legacy of racial injustice in the United States. Many voting rights advocates claim that the current threat to enfranchisement began with a Supreme Court decision in 2013. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that key parts of the 1965 Civil Rights Act were unconstitutional. This means that protections meant to preserve the ability of Black voters to vote were removed from law. The majority argued that it was time for the law to reflect the times, noting a significant improvement in voting rights for Black Americans since the 1960’s. Advocates for this opinion agreed, also noting that it brought “undue embarrassment” onto a city or county to have extra federal oversight due to offenses committed over 50 years earlier. The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a scathing dissenting opinion, brilliantly arguing “[repealing the provision] is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm simply because you are not getting wet.” Her argument was that the only thing that had stopped abuses from happening since the 1960’s was the very existence of this section of the Civil Rights Act. By taking it away, the dissent and its supporters argued, it would “open the floodgates” to voter intimidation tactics. This would sadly be proven to be true in events that followed.
The film “Capturing the Flag”, directed by Anne de Mare, explores problems that arose from this decision. Prior to the 2016 election in the United States, North Carolina enacted a law that required an ID to vote, which was later overturned. Confusion abounded as some voters were purged from the rolls over errors in change of addresses. At one polling site, 1,200 people showed up to vote, but only 598 of their votes counted. de Mare argues, “It’s neglect, lack of funds, shifting legislation, a sense of confusion. I by no means think these issues are specific to North Carolina. But North Carolina has had some of the most high-profile instances.” Multiple times in the documentary, Laverne Berry, a lawyer who intended to help people vote, notes that even she is confused by the multiple changes that had been made so close to election day. While this confusion is not as overt as a poll tax or literacy test, its existence discourages people from voting and lets them believe their voice may not matter, especially as news stories about issues circulated. We should take note of these shadow suppression tactics.
The state of Florida was one of only three states that prevented formerly incarcerated persons from voting before a 2018 referenda, even after their sentence was completed. Over one million formerly incarcerated persons were disenfranchised as a result. Many Americans would be surprised by the magnitude of this issue. Because of the country’s long history of unequal justice under the law between Black and White communities, many Black Americans, especially in the state of Florida, have permanent convictions on their record, even for minor offenses like the possession of marijuana. In 2018, 65% of the state voted for Proposition 4, which finally enfranchised these voters. However, recent developments have imposed new, undue barriers on their right to vote. Last month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that formerly convicted persons had to pay the remainder of their court fees before they earned right to vote. Because of the economic inequality as a result of generations of racial discrimination, it will prove to be especially difficult for these formerly incarcerated persons to pay their court fees to vote. Over 85,000 formerly incarcerated persons who registered to vote may be purged from the rolls if the entirety of their court fees were not paid, although it is not clear if this will happen before the general election. This decision creates an indirect poll tax and will lead to the continued disenfranchisement of the majority of these formerly incarcerated persons, as a result of the monetary cost and a dearth of clear information on how to register and confirm their vote counts on election day.
Why should we care about these developments in the United States and what does it have to say about the state of democratic erosion in this country? In her piece, Bermeo argued that while overt challenges to democracy have become far less common, more subtle changes have been made that are dangerous because they are poorly understood and quietly implemented. In his piece, Dahl argues that two key parts of a well-functioning democracy are free and fair elections and the right to vote, of which both of the above developments challenge.
Another argument of Dahl was that governments should be able to be held accountable, that is, answerable to the will of the voters. Both earlier examples in this post began to be an issue because of the decision of high court, comprised of justices appointed by Executive officers, not directly elected by the people, who also hold lifetime appointments. Very clearly in the state of Florida, their ruling goes against the will of the people (remember 65% of the Florida electorate supported Proposition 4). While some may argue that the existence of high courts free from the “tyranny of the majority” may be good for democratic institutions (and I would even be inclined to agree sometimes), it is still clear that reforms must be made to keep the judiciary accountable. This development threatens Dahl’s definition of democracy, since the justices who made these consequential decisions were not elected and serve lifelong terms.
Modern day democratic erosion occurs away from clear public view. There are many examples in the United States over recent years where institutions were slowly chipped away, decreasing their effectiveness every time they were altered. The disenfranchisement of voters Is no different. As I mentioned previously, it is clear that principles of democracy run deep in this country. Citizens genuinely believe in the idea of “one man, one vote.” However, what is far less clear is that they know of what has been done to challenge that principle. Events in North Carolina and Florida should offend our core democratic principles. More must be done to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their race, political views, or past mistakes, get a chance to have their voice heard. We also must address questions around the structure and function of our judiciary to make them more accountable to democratic principles. This work will only be done as soon as we collectively realize our shared duty to learn more about the system to defend it. Democracy dies in darkness.