Why Isn’t Voter Suppression Considered Political Corruption?
On Election Day last November, Gladys Harris, 66, of Milwaukee went to cast her vote for president of the United States. Harris had lost her driver’s license shortly before the election, but she was sure the process would go smoothly. After all, she is a U.S. citizen and brought her Social Security and Medicare cards, along with a county-issued bus pass with her photo to the polls to verify her identity. Still, Harris was denied the right to vote and turned away from the polls.
It is estimated that as many as 300,000 eligible Wisconsin voters lacked the right state ID and thus were not allowed to vote in the election, just as Harris was denied. Donald Trump won the state by only 22,000 votes.
Voter ID laws are part of a cocktail of voter suppression tactics enacted by Republicans in order to suppress the political power of minorities or prevent them from voting altogether. While voter ID laws are the most notorious of these strategies, gerrymandered districts and certain state laws that strip felons of their voting rights are also designed specifically to steal political power from minorities.
Courts across the country have found the nature of these voter suppression tactics to be racially motivated. In April, a federal judge ruled that a 2011 voter ID law passed in Texas was crafted to discriminate against blacks and Hispanics. Last summer, a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law, ruling that it discriminated against minorities.
Taking voting rights away from felons is also a move that disproportionately hits black voters. In states like Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky, over 20 percent of voting-age black people cannot vote because of a prior felony conviction.
And gerrymandering has been shown to reduce the political influence of black voters, by packing black people into a single district to prevent their influence from being spread across multiple districts. A piece by Kim Soffen in the Washington Post shows how Republican state legislatures draw district lines. She used a poignant hypothetical where Republicans created a 50 percent black district and a 10 percent black district rather than two 30 percent black districts. The former would give black voters their choice of representative in only one of the districts, while the latter would likely give them their choice of representative in both districts.
Research has continually shown that voter suppression tactics from Republicans have targeted minorities and robbed them of their political power. In some cases, the courts have concurred, but unfortunately, voter suppression is often framed as a partisan issue. It shouldn’t be. Voter suppression is Republicans specifically targeting the most marginalized and poorest demographics in the country.
According to 2013 research from Pew Research Center, the median net worth of a black family is $11,000, and for Hispanic families, the number is $13,700. For white families, that number is $141,900. Black and Hispanic voters tend to be among the poorest in the country, and their voting rights are under assault from a party that represents wealthy white interests. The Republican Party robs minorities of their political influence and then passes laws that are socially and economically detrimental to them, such as harsher prison sentences, budget cuts to schools in minority districts and the erosion of labor protections.
This maneuver is effectively a transfer of wealth and political power from blacks and Hispanics to white Republicans. Minorities on the losing end know they’re getting shafted, but have little recourse because poverty limits their ability to use the courts or form political interest groups. When politicians steal money from charities or government organizations, we call it political corruption. But when Republicans steal money and political influence from minorities through voter suppression, we call it partisan bickering. Democrats, left-leaning groups and anti-corruption organizations should start calling voter suppression what it is—political corruption.
Framing the issue is important because it is an effective way for voting rights advocates to expand the base of support for their fight. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t broad support for legalizing marijuana. But an effective messaging campaign turned marijuana legalization into a medical issue instead of a recreational one, leading to an increase in support and over two dozen states legalizing medical marijuana. Instead of visualizing teenagers smoking marijuana, legalization advocates got voters to think about cancer and epilepsy patients and others who use the drug to relieve pain.
In the same vein, voting rights advocates can draw in a bigger base of support by framing voter suppression as an issue of political corruption. Currently, voter suppression is a problem known to the Democratic base and activists, but it isn’t covered extensively by the media and is openly dismissed by Republicans as a partisan issue. Framing voter suppression as political corruption would put Republicans on the defensive and force them to answer for stealing political influence from minority voters. It would also garner more media coverage, because corruption and theft sounds juicer and more pressing than “partisan differences.”
Democrats have fought gerrymandering and voter ID laws in the courts, but controlling state legislatures and governorships would provide a better opportunity to begin pushing back on some of these laws. If 2018 brings the Democratic wave election some political analysts foresee, Democrats could win majorities in state capitols and work to repeal voter ID laws from the governor’s mansion. Repealing voter ID laws and returning voting rights to felons would empower a greater number of minorities to be able to vote their interests. That would likely put Democrats in a better position for the 2020 redistricting fight, where congressional districts are drawn. Gerrymandered districts across the country make many Republican House seats in Congress uncompetitive. But if Democrats are successful in 2018 and use that power to help restore the voting rights of minorities, newly drawn districts could see many formerly safe Republican seats up for grabs throughout the 2020s.
Political corruption shouldn’t be a phrase reserved for bribes or campaign finance issues. The left might be facing an internal Sanders-Clinton divide, but both sides should agree that voter suppression is a critical problem that must be solved if the left wants to have the opportunity to win and actually improve peoples’ lives. The Sanders left has taken up the banner against political corruption, and framing the voter suppression issue in this way could help bring more support from youth and independents. Fighting a corrupt Republican Party that wants to steal political power from the most marginalized should be something that can unite the left. And when it comes to voter suppression, minorities need all the help they can get.