PoliticsAfter 95 years of women's suffrage, these people still can't vote in the United States
Women gained their hard-won right to vote in the US 95 years ago today, but many other groups are still waiting.
Women gained their hard-won right to vote in the United States 95 years ago today. The passage of the 19th Amendment on August 20, 1920, came after nearly a century of grassroots campaigning. But nearly a century later, too many American citizens still can’t cast a ballot. Over ten million citizens are legally prohibited from doing so while millions more face draconian voter ID laws and other restrictions that make taking part in the democratic process exceptionally difficult. In honor of this historic day, Hopes & Fears takes a look at the ongoing disenfranchisement of four groups of Americans.
In most states, being convicted of any felony, including non-violent drug offenses, permanently revokes an American’s right to vote. These laws affect an estimated 5.85 million incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens and, due to the racial disparity in the incarcerated population, exacerbate existing racial disparities in voting access, leaving one in 13 African-Americans disenfranchised. Politicians paranoid about appearing soft on crime often see little incentive in reforming these laws. When Congress first revisited the policy in the 1990s, Republicans worried that felons would overwhelmingly vote for Democrats and blocked proposals.
But more than any other group in this article, felons’ right to participate in democracy is increasingly being recognized. According to The Sentencing Project, and organization that works to reform sentencing policy, reforms over the past decade have returned voting rights to over 800,000 former convicts in 35 states, with strong support from both liberal and conservative politicians. (George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, signed legislation automatically granting enfranchisement to felons who had served their sentences.) As Sentencing Project executive director Marc Mauer told the Chicago Tribune, “Some of these policies had been in place for 150 years, and no one had ever looked at them. People recognized that [lifetime disenfranchisement] was extreme."
Residents of Washington, D.C.
Since 2000, license plates in Washington, D.C. have read “Taxation Without Representation” under the plate number, and it’s true: the District’s odd status as being exclusively under the jurisdiction of Congress denies its 660,000 citizens equal participation in government, despite its residents paying taxes like everyone else.
Congress must approve all laws and budgets pertaining to D.C., allowing it to intervene in matters decided by the Washington City Council – as happened earlier this year, when House GOP leaders moved to block a bill preventing retaliation against employees who use contraception or seek abortions. Similarly, if the US government shuts down, all public services in D.C. are forced to follow suit, and citizens have no say in the matter. Local budgets suffer because members of Congress unfamiliar with the area still have to sign off, and the process requires an 8-month delay based on frequently-outdated projections.
The movement to enfranchise D.C., either by absorbing it into Virginia or making a new state, faces apathy in Congress and general resistance based on the Constitution’s strict guidelines for the District’s operation. Until the passage of the 23rd Amendment in 1961 D.C. citizens couldn’t vote at all, and they still have access only to national elections. Several organizations, most notably DCVote, advocate for enfranchisement, but they’ve made little progress in the last 50 years.
Residents of US Territories
While the 23rd Amendment gave citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections, the 5 million Americans living in US territories – Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands – enjoy no such rights, despite contributing materially to the welfare of the U.S.
Hopes & Fears spoke to Neil Weare, president and founder of the We the People Project, which works to enfranchise citizens of U.S. territories. “In Guam, one in eight residents will serve in the U.S. military”, says Weare, “But it ranks last in spending on veterans.” He adds that soldiers from American Samoa suffered seven times the national casualty rate in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite having no voice in the decision to declare either war – or in allocating funding for their veterans upon return.
Puerto Rico has also long fought for their right to vote. The territory recently declared bankruptcy due to debts which many attribute to Puerto Rico’s legal status and lack of representation. “The problem for Puerto Rico has been for 117 years that all major decisions about the island are made by Congress, not by the elected officials of Puerto Rico themselves,” journalist Juan Gonzalez told Truth Out. “All of this is rooted in the fact that Puerto Rico remains a colony of the United States, with no voting representation in Congress.”
Though John Oliver touched on the issue Puerto Rico and other territories face on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, many, if not most, Americans are simply unaware of the situation, and that’s the biggest challenge for the We the People Project and others advocating for Americans in U.S. territories. “We work to raise awareness that this disenfranchisement exists,” says Weare. “Until other Americans realize there’s a problem, it’s difficult to create a solution.”
Americans targeted by voter suppression
In a sneaky sleight of hand, the Supreme Court in 2013 eviscerated the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 a day before announcing landmark decisions in favor of marriage equality. The Shelby County v. Holder decision struck down the VRA’s requirement for historically racist states and counties to seek approval from Congress before changing their voting laws. Almost immediately, all of those states introduced legislation to toughen voter ID requirements, reduce or eliminate early voting and same-day registration, and end the “take your soul to the poll” option of Sunday voting, a strong tradition among African-Americans to go straight from church to the voting booth. According to a Brennan Center for Justice study, at least 92 restrictive bills were introduced in 33 states that year.
Gary May, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware, notes that the history of African-Americans’ struggle for enfranchisement is unique. As he details in his book Bending Toward Justice, African-Americans voted enthusiastically immediately following the passage of the 14th Amendment, their newly-granted enfranchisement compelling them to engage deeply with their government. But when Reconstruction ended and Southern segregationists regained power, most African-Americans essentially lost their right to vote until the VRA’s passage seven decades later. When the Supreme Court gutted the Act, it reversed over fifty years’ worth of progress.
“It’s an endless battle,” May told Hopes & Fears, “and I’m pretty discouraged. Gutting the VRA affects fifteen states with aggressive voting policies, which account for 162 electoral votes, including four swing states.” It’s not just African-Americans whose enfranchisement suffered: as May notes, older, poor, and college-aged Americans also struggle to fulfill the stringent requirements of such laws. Poor Americans can’t get time off work or money for gas, older ones face mobility issues, and those aged 18-24 may be living out-of-state or lack a driver’s license. “It’s not a coincidence that this targets Obama’s coalition,” May says.
Addressing voter suppression often seems like fighting a hydra, with each small victory subject to bigger setbacks and new laws appearing almost monthly. “While Section 2 of the VRA allows people to challenge voter ID laws, litigation is a long and expensive process,” says May, “and the NAACP’s Legal Defense League and the ACLU can’t be everywhere.” He expects the fight to intensify on both sides as the 2016 election nears, and worries that, if there’s a close call, suppression will decide its outcome.
“The bottom line,” May concludes, “is that we should have policies that make it easier to vote, not harder."