For three months, I was a woman.
I don’t mean my gender identity, nor do I mean my biology; for three months, I was bureaucratically identified as a woman by Cook County and, conversely, the State of Illinois. In the days following high school graduation, my older brother Joel and I decided to drive to town hall, register to vote, and secure absentee ballots for the two of us. We would both be at college come November but we wanted to vote in our home elections since our oldest brother, Sam, was working for the incumbent governor’s reelection campaign.
Inside the ivy-clad red brick building, light was eerily dimmed. I had only been inside the building once or twice before, the cold air and shiny, polished walls made me feel trapped. I waved to a high school friend working at the front desk, and walked with Joel over to the registration counter. A lady, teeming with impatience, insisted she fill out the registration card for me. I gave her my information. She ripped off the top sheet and handed me the small green registration receipt and asked me to check it over. I examined my name, birthday, and address, typical items one might misspell. I confirmed everything was correct and headed home.
A few hours later, I was looking over my receipt, glowing from the sunlight that peeped into my room from the adjacent window. A small detail caught my eye, something I hadn’t noticed before. In the gender section, “F” was circled, not “M.”
I panicked. I had been waiting to register to vote for quite some time and a small clerical error could curtail the whole process. I immediately grabbed my car keys, ran outside into the hot June sun, and drove off, back to the Town Hall. I found a lady who was working and told her my predicament but she said the registration cards had already been sent to the Cook County office. She simply gave me a number to call, nothing more.
Voting hasn’t always been easy. After slavery was abolished and the country passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which banned slavery, established equal protection under the law for all American citizens, and gave Black people the right to vote, respectively, Southern states established the Jim Crow laws, designed to circumvent the new amendments and prevent Blacks from participating in democracy. In the South, Blacks were segregated in public institutions and various mechanisms were put in place to prevent Blacks from voting, including but not limited to poll taxes and literacy tests.
Roughly one hundred years later, Congress recognized the problem and passed legislation to solve it. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the cabinet department tasked with enforcement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 established nationwide norms that regulated voting restrictions to expand accessibility. The law also allowed the DOJ to target certain counties or districts with irregularly high instances of racial discrimination. The Voting Rights Act was written in such a way that required reauthorization has been reauthorized and amended a few more times since, it has survived its fair share of Supreme Court cases, and it has served a dramatically important role in enfranchising blacks, incorporating that race into the democratic society in which we live.
Today, however, voting is simply becoming harder and harder in the United States. After the 2010 elections, many newly elected Republican state governments passed restrictions that limited voting rights in their states; they claim their goal was to limit voter fraud. Republicans are concerned about the risk that a few people could fraudulently affect the election so that a candidate is guaranteed to win, despite for whom the electorate hopes to vote. It’s a noble cause, but only at first glance. Loyola University Law School professor Justin Levitt reports that a comprehensive investigation of voter fraud from 2000 to 2014 found thirty-one counts of voter fraud—out of one billion votes cast. In other words, that’s virtually a rate of zero. Non-existent.
According to a 2011 report by Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, state legislatures enacted a number of restrictions on the voting process, including:
- Mandated photo identification (e.g. a passport, a driver’s license)
- Registration made harder by limiting same-day registration and mobilization efforts
- Early and/or absentee voting period reduced
- Voting rights restoration for felons made more difficult
All of these restrictions disproportionately hinder minorities’ ability to vote. Since a large amount of Blacks and Hispanics, the majority of whom vote for Democrats, live in dense urban centers of population, they have no need for a car and thus tend to not get driver’s licenses. Since many of these urban Blacks and Hispanics are also impoverished, or at least close to the poverty line, they don’t get passports because they don’t travel overseas on vacation. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the non-partisan budgeting information office of the government, found that obtaining a valid identification is quite costly. For instance, the GAO estimates the direct cost of a driver’s license ranges from $14.50 to $58.50. When an individual discovers that it would cost her nearly $60 to vote, exercising her democratic right doesn’t seem so worth it anymore. Another study, completed by the Brennan Center at NYU Law, finds that 7% of U.S. citizens don’t have ready access to citizenship documents and 11% don’t have government-issued photo identification. In the latter case, 25% of African-Americans don’t have this type of identification, whereas only 8% of Whites don’t.
Eliminating same-day registration (being able to register on Election Day and then vote) massively favors Republicans. If an individual moves residences close to an election, she may miss the deadline to register. A 2002 report by Demos, a think tank that produces research about election reform, estimates that more than 40 million people moved from March 1999 to March 2000, that majority of which were young, people of color, and/or low-income Americans. All three of these groups of people are more likely than not to vote for Democrats. Republicans effectively seek to eliminate the voting power of individuals who move, likely for education (young people) or for work (poor people), and who are likely to not vote for Republicans.
Absentee voting, too, is a major method to increase voting that has been curtailed by new restrictions. A 2001 article in American Politics Research by Jeffrey A. Karp and Susan A. Banducci of the University of Amsterdam describe the franchising effects of absentee voting on students and disabled individuals: “We…find evidence that absentee laws help increase the likelihood of voting for those who might otherwise be inconvenienced by going to the polls. The potential for absentee laws to stimulate turnout among groups not likely to vote is largely limited to the persons with disabilities and students.” While not significant by itself, limiting absentee voting falls in line with a litany of other mechanisms that serve to cut off individuals, particularly those more likely to vote for liberal candidates, from voting.
Felons also face a tough battle in securing their voting rights. A November 2014 editorial in the New York Times describes the intersection of race and disenfranchisement for felons. States that have forbade the right to vote from felons “stripped one in every 13 black persons of the right to vote — a rate four times that of nonblacks nationally.” Felons, who are incredibly more likely to vote with Democrats on issues of criminal justice and the death penalty for obvious reasons, are effectively prevented from voting by Republicans who don’t share their beliefs.
An unbelievably funny The Daily Show segment by Aasif Mandvi in 2013 sought to determine the real reason for establishing voter identification laws and the results did not disappoint. A Republican Party leader in North Carolina, Don Yelton, admitted very clearly not only that in his district of 160,000 he witnessed the problem of voter fraud—one or two people were filling out two ballots instead of one, a fraud rate of 0.00125%—but also that the voter identification restrictions were designed to disenfranchise Democrats. And following the interview, Jason Sattler, in The National Memo, compiled a list of six other occasions in which a GOP member admitted the goal of voting restrictions was solely to disenfranchise Democrats. In one high-profile case before the 2012 election, a Republican representative from Pennsylvania, Mike Turzai, announced with pride that new voter ID laws in Pennsylvania “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
Voting rights aren’t a major problem in every state. In my home state of Illinois, there is no documentation required to vote. There’s also no identification required to vote in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, among many other states. By my state’s neighbor, Indiana, strictly enforces a voter identification mandate. All in all, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that thirty-four states require some sort of identification. And in the southeast, the historic hotbed of racism, only one state, North Carolina, doesn’t require identification.
The partisan divide has not only seeped into the voting registration and ballot casting processes; partyism, the increasingly growing and xenophobia-like divide between political poles, finds itself deeply engrained in the underlying structure of voting’s importance: districting. Gerrymandering is a way to inflate and deflate the value of certain votes in an election. Here’s how it works: the state of Illinois has 18 congressional districts. Every other year, the state votes on its representatives from these districts. If you, like me, live in the 10th District, you vote for the candidates to represent the 10th. These districts are separated by geographical boundaries. Every ten years, after new census data is released, each state gains representatives (if its share of the national population increases), loses representatives (if its share decreases), or keeps the same amount of representatives (if its share remains about the same). The state also changes the boundaries of districts to keep each district about equal in its population.
Let’s say Illinois gains two House seats in 2020. The Illinois state legislature is tasked with redrawing the boundaries of the districts. And more often than not, with knowledge about population centers in the state, the state legislature will draw districts to affect voting. For example, for Democrats, it would be wise to create a small, if any, amount of districts where Republicans have overwhelming majorities and create many, many more districts where Democrats have a safe, but narrow lead. And to draw these maps, the Democrats would have to draw incredibly awkwardly shaped districts that seem to defy all logic. Districts often contain rural, suburban, and urban areas, with incredibly conflicting demands. The term gerrymandering is named after Eldridge Gerry, elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1810. Gerry tried to create districts that would eliminate Federalist Party power. The resulting district, resembling a salamander, was depicted in an incredibly famous political cartoon. Both parties employ this tactic widely and shamelessly. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia are particularly notable for their extremity. For instance, I live in a hotbed of Democratic gerrymandering. Jowei Chen, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and Jonathan Rodden, a professor of political science at Stanford University, describe Chicago as “artfully divid[ed]” into “pie-sliced districts” such that Illinois Democrats maintain power indefinitely. And for the most part, it’s true. A Republican congressman from Chicago is almost unthinkable (though, to be fair, in three of the last four elections, my congressional district voted for a Republican) and it’s only likely to stay that way.
Gerrymandering, albeit morally questionable, is perfectly legal. According to Richard K. Scher, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, the Supreme Court ruled in Davis v. Bandemer that deliberately drawing along partisan lines is constitutional because it’s “the way the political game is played.” And neither party wants to challenge the ruling because each knows they will need gerrymandering in the future.
I began calling the Cook County Election Office that day. I called incessantly. Day after day, the shrill voice recording monotonously listed menu items, none of which included a section for fixing their own mistakes: a symptom of the sort of self-satisfaction that I eventually found to be quite engrained in government institutions.
Weeks passed. The telephone menus still made little sense. By July, I had given up. I made a call about once every other week. My mother decided to pick up my slack, calling Cook County in her spare time, but to little effect. She was once put on hold for a few hours. I was a college student by the time she received an answer. Finally, one small circle was moved a couple of inches to the left. Suffrage had come, at last.
Voter suppression in one form or another is indisputable. But why would elected leaders limit Americans’ voting rights so blatantly?
They’re scared. They’re scared of losing control.
It’s pitiful, really. Elected leaders are so terrified that their party may be replaced in the coming elections that they seek to disenfranchise those that pose a threat. In other words, Democrats try to hold on to their power by eliminating Republicans’ votes and Republicans try to hold on to their power by eliminating Democrats’ votes. This fear, mostly for conservatives simply because of the partisan alignment, is certainly racial in practice and appears to be xenophobic. O. Ricardo Pimentel, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, exposes this fear in our elected officials in a column. He writes, “Texas demonstrated that it would rather cling to its sordid past of voter suppression. Its fear of “the other” is that pronounced – yet another groundless fear…Embracing change is never easy. Resisting it is almost always ugly.”
This fear is not entirely new, but it has certainly been heightened recently. New research from Shanto Iyengar, a Professor of Political Science at Stanford, and Sean J. Westwood, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Princeton University, indicates that political polarization is outpacing racism in discriminating against individuals. Iyengar and Westwood conducted two implicit differentiation tests for groups of individuals, using race in one and party affiliation in another, to determine political prejudice. They found that individuals are more likely to associate the opposing party with “bad” than a different race. Iyengar and Westwood followed up to see if these attitudes affected behaviors by giving high school seniors’ resumes to individuals to consider whether they should be given scholarships. The resumes, which had minor racial clues and party clues (such as “president of the African American Student Association” or “president of Young Republicans”), showed that while race certainly had an effect, the subjects still evaluated the merits of individuals when their race differed. When the resumes indicated a different political affiliation, the subjects abandoned reason and refused to reward scholarships to students of opposing political parties, even if they were more qualified.
Partisanship is becoming overly extreme. Recent research suggests that Americans are the most partisan they have ever been. Fewer and fewer individuals are comfortable with marrying someone outside their own party. Research in the October 2014 American Journal of Political Science from Rose McDermott, Dustin Tingley, and Peter K. Hatemi, professors of political science at Brown University, Harvard University and Penn State, respectively, find that Republicans and Democrats “find the smell of those who are more ideologically similar to themselves more attractive than those endorsing opposing ideologies.” We can literally smell out people of our own kind. While the phenomenon is old (we didn’t just recently experience a heightening of our olfactory sense), the research and subsequent publicity is new. And the publicity engrains the sense of hyper-partisanship in the American psyche. Republicans come to find more of an enemy in Democrats and Democrats come to find more of an enemy in Republicans. It’s an escalating spiral with no end in sight.
Iyengar and Westwood conducted further research about trust. Using a complicated game of trust involving loaning money to another participant, the researchers found that race of the other participant didn’t affect an individual’s trust at all, but political affiliation did. The matter of trust is especially important. If one party can’t trust the other, they have a major incentive to block that party out of the political sphere. If they can’t trust the other party to legislate correctly, to push for the policies they want to see initiated, they become fearful, anxious, and scared. They become fearful of a Congress over which they don’t have control. They’re afraid they’ll become a part of the minority party after the next election or worse: they’ll be voted out. And so congressmen increasingly turn to tactics to lock in their position and their legislative power. They prevent members of the opposing party from voting by making requirements drastically more stringent and they dilute their opponents’ votes and inflate their members’ own by redrawing congressional district boundaries.
This fear is far from limited to politicians. We’re uncomfortable with the unknown, with not being in control of our future. I’ll be the first to proudly admit it. People fight wars to secure resources, to prevent invasion of their own country, to prevent other religions from spreading. Governments build up massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons to deter enemies, to prevent anyone from attacking. It’s a natural part of human life to be scared. But when that fear comes at the expense of others’ rights, it becomes a problem.
To be fair, some of the politicians’ fears are legitimate. Both parties have shortfalls in their policy positions; neither provides a particular silver bullet for America’s ills. Additionally, America is expressly a republic, not a democracy; that is, we are a country with a government system that is structured on the idea that citizens are not informed. We don’t afford every voting right to American citizens because they don’t know enough about problems to vote for legislation. But such a Machiavellian power grab by politicians is simply uncalled for.
On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that the politicians enacting restrictions on voting rights are racist. After all, their “reforms” target Hispanic and Black voters in particular. Jamelle Bouie dispels these myths by summing up recent research in the field. Even the authors of studies that seem to draw a connection between attitudes on race and voter identification support, such as a study that showed that congressmen reply less to emails about voter identification requirements from “Santiago Rodriguez” than “Jacob Smith,” note that the underlying cause is partisanship, rather than racism. “It’s not racial, it’s tribal,” writes Bouie. After all, Republicans have heavy Latino support from wealthy Cuban immigrants in Miami who call for a tough diplomatic stance on their home country (think Florida Senator Marco Rubio). Republicans also feature a good number of prominent Black party members (think former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell). But in the end, the effect is the same: whether congressmen are limiting the vote or voting power of Blacks or Hispanics for partisan or racist reasons, the end result is always racial.
I didn’t face any problems with my mail ballot, I was ultimately able to vote, and I will be in the future. But, then again, I have the privilege of having a driver’s license and a passport. I have the privilege of not having to show these forms of identification. To this day, my green receipt, error and all, hangs over my desk as a reminder not of the frivolous yet impactful mistakes the government may make, but rather the right that I have been granted and that so many others have been denied, held in shackles by a fearful, partisan, bureaucratic mess of a voting institution.