While they may have faded into the background during the absurdities of the first few weeks of the Trump Administration, let’s refocus ourselves on a few of our new POTUS’ recent tweets.
In post-election America voting regulations aren’t the hot-button topic anymore. Issues like the immigration ban are now more important than the effects of losing the popular vote on our President’s Hubris. But make no mistake those tweets, as well as a lot of predominantly republican rhetoric from the past campaign, are part of an American tradition of voter suppression that continues to this day.
One of the commonly expressed platitudes about American democracy is that our directly elected politicians are responsive to the public will. However, I would like to amend that statement to say that they are responsive only to the voting public’s will (this glosses over important issues in campaign finance, but that’s a different Pandora’s box).
In the past decade dozens of states have passed legislation purporting to uphold the integrity of elections through stricter ID laws for voting. This is all despite the fact that the type of fraud prevented by ID laws is almost non-existent. These laws can rob Americans of the freedom to express themselves politically far more than they prevent fraud, which in my opinion is actually a net loss in integrity for our elections.
Last year both Texas and North Carolina had overbearing voter ID laws struck down in Federal Court on the grounds that they were purposely aimed at discriminating against minority voters. So just why do states attempt to pass these laws? My answer is not that our lawmakers are overtly racist or discriminatory, but that techniques for political survival and maintaining party dominance within states have institutionalized racism. It’s not that those proposing these laws think that minorities are lesser people, only that they are less likely to vote for them.
If you’re a republican congressman, governor, or state legislator, you know that minority voters are simply very unlikely to vote for you in meaningful numbers. In states where minority populations are growing, or already capable of swinging an election, just wanting to keep your job creates an incentive to disenfranchise them. Even more perversely this has the effect of consolidating electoral power to those who already support the politicians in office.
Because these people cannot vote, their views are less represented by their local legislators. And if their views are less important, then legislators have more freedom to pass discriminatory laws against them, usually under the aforementioned guise of preventing fraud. In biology this is what’s known as a positive feedback loop where once something is introduced it triggers a cycle generating more and more of that thing.
But perhaps this feedback loop wasn’t started with the implementation of the first strict voter ID laws in 2006. In fact there is a strong argument that these current laws are part of a cycle which can trace itself back to the overt racism of past centuries, especially in Southern states where slavery was most common.
The terrible political representation of minorities in our country can be traced all the way back to the ratification of our constitution. In our country’s early years not only were African-Americans not allowed to vote, but for census purposes they actually counted as 3/5ths of a person, increasing the power of slave-owning states at the federal level.
Fast forward to reconstruction. Even with the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments several states moved quickly to limit the voting rights of newly freed African-Americans, lest they take control of government institutions. This legacy lived on through Jim Crow laws, heavily biased literacy tests required to be allowed to vote, and relatively more recent attempts at gerrymandering.
My final though about voter ID and laws and representation is this: are the issues we see inherent problems created by a single member plurality voting system? Or are there tenable solutions, whole or partial, that can be implemented within the existing framework?