In 2018, Barack Obama said, “We’re the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting.” This is incredibly problematic and unfortunately incredibly true. Political scientist Joseph Schumpeter  defines democracy as an arrangement decided by “means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote”, and Robert Dahl among a longer list of criteria stresses of right to vote in democracy. How can this ‘struggle’ exist when millions of Americans have their right to vote suppressed. The deliberate discouragement of voting threatens the legitimacy of America’s democracy at its core.
From analysing the history of voting rules, present-day gerrymandering and felon disenfranchisement it becomes clear that the current legislature seeks to exclude minority communities from voting.
The history of the struggle of the right to vote began in 1789 when the right was only given to white, capital owning men. After reconstruction, Southern States implemented new laws that restricted black citizens from exercising their right to vote. For example in Mississippi, a new law required an annual poll tax, which voters were required to have paid two years before the election, this majorly excluded the majority poor black communities in the state. The fight for equal opportunity to vote was a key focus of the Civil Rights movement with a key goal being to register black voters from the south. One of the big achievements of the movement was the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 which sought to root out the legal barriers that suppressed black votes.
Gerrymandering is a method of manipulating the geography of electoral constituencies to influence the vote so that the outcome favours a certain party. Just like the Southern laws which sought to exclude the black voters, gerrymandering is still used in the US to influence the election for partisan gains. North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are three states where the Republican party in 2018 still won the seats having received a minority of the votes. This undemocratic gerrymandering also occurred in 2011 when the congressional map from the 2010 midterms severely “diluted” the strength of the black vote.
As aforementioned, felon disenfranchisement is another one of the ways that the US excludes members of its population from voting. It should be noted that in the UK when prisoners were denied the right to vote, the European Cout of Human Rights labeled this a break of human rights. The first article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. How can citizens in the US be deemed equal if voter disenfranchisement disproportionately affects black Americans? There are approximately 4.7 million Americans that are prevented from voting due to felon disenfranchisement. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza in their book Locked Out , write that “when African Americans make up a larger proportion of a state’s prison population, that state is significantly more likely to adopt or extend felon disenfranchisement.”.
Furthermore, as we approach a winter after a long summer of political unrest it would be difficult for anyone to feign ignorance as to the injustices and inequalities in the criminal justice system for black people in this country. The repercussions of these injustices ricochet into political outcomes as minority citizens are overpoliced and under-protected leaving large swathes of the population unable to vote. And thus are unrepresented in poltiicsl. Additionally, the severity of the crime in some states is often disregarded when disenfranchising the citizens to encompassing incidence to include burglary and repeated driving under the influence. According to the Sentencing Project, “1 of every 16 African Americans has lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement laws, vs 1 in every 59 non-black voters”. And so it is clear that voter disenfancheisment specivially excludes minority communities.
One of the beacons of American pride is that it is the oldest democracy in the world. The purpose of democracy is for all citizens to have their political expression weighted equally. How can this occur if significant proportions of the population have their voting rights suppressed and targeted? How can the US be seen as a world leader in human rights when it abuses citizens voting rights? In Australia, voting is mandatory and in Sweden, all citizens are automatically registered to vote. The US must rectify these changes if its to keep its reputation as a leading liberal democracy.
- Mackie, Gerry. “Schumpeter’s Leadership Democracy.” Political Theory, vol. 37, no. 1, 2009, pp. 128–153. JSTOR, p. 141. www.jstor.org/stable/20452683. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
- Dahl, R. and Shapiro, I., 2015. On Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, p.3.
- Manza, J. and Uggen, C., 2008. Locked Out. Oxford: Oxford University Press.