There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about “disfranchisement.” Jesse Jackson has invoked memories of the bloody battles for voter registration in Selma; elderly Jews in Palm Beach, upset that they might have voted for an anti-Semite, have sworn that they were “disfranchised” by a butterfly ballot. The Republicans have lamented the disfranchisement of overseas soldiers for want of a postmark. Even the justices of the Florida Supreme Court got into the act.
The rhetoric is overblown, but there is a point: One byproduct of our election-turned-lawsuit is the revelation of the many ways people can be prevented from voting and having their votes counted. Thanks to the spotlight on Florida (focusing beams elsewhere as well), we now know that it is routine for states and counties to toss out tens of thousands of ballots because they are imperfectly marked; for countless people to arrive at the polls to find that their registration forms have been lost; for voting machines to have error rates that would be unacceptable in the grading of SATs.
The most extreme case is outright legal disfranchisement. Since the dramatic advances in voting rights of the 1960s, straightforward legal barriers apply only to two large groups of adults: noncitizens and felons. Noncitizens, numbering 15 million, have not always been excluded from the franchise, but the last state to allow aliens to vote (Arkansas) did away with that practice in the 1920s. Although a few communities permit resident aliens to vote in local elections, there has been a notable absence of debate in the United States (in comparison with Europe) on the proposition that people should be able to vote where they live and work.
Felons are permanently disfranchised in some states and temporarily barred in most others. (On November 7 Massachusetts brought a long, progressive history to an end by voting to disfranchise convicted felons.) Disfranchised felons and ex-felons now number roughly 4 million, most of them black or Hispanic. The link between the commission of a crime and the deprivation of political rather than civil rights has always been tenuous, and the constitutional legitimacy of such laws resides in a dubious interpretation of a phrase in the Fourteenth Amendment that tacitly permits the states to deprive men of the right to vote because of their participation in “rebellion or other crime.”
Voters can also be prevented from voting (or having their votes counted) because they are tripped up somewhere along the elections-procedure obstacle course. In most states, advance registration is required; in many, no voting cards are issued, and (as happened in Illinois and elsewhere this year) people who thought they had registered at motor-vehicles bureaus discovered on Election Day that their registration was never recorded. Ballots are sometimes bewildering, assistance at the polls is scarce and problematic, and polling places migrate, often without notice.
In some states, it can be difficult, or even impossible, to vote for a candidate who happens not to be a Democrat or a Republican. In North Carolina, for example, Ralph Nader was not on the ballot (because he lacked enough signatures on a petition last spring), and write-in votes for Nader were not counted because he was not an “official” write-in candidate. (Since that fact was not advertised, many people did write in his name and had their ballots thrown away.) Meanwhile, the Electoral College dilutes the presidential votes of large-state residents, and minority voters are still subject to harassment in parts of the South.
This unhappy state of affairs has complex origins. Some of our institutions, such as the Electoral College, were created in an era when there were few believers in democracy. Many regulations date to a resurgence of antidemocratic sentiment in the late nineteenth century, a time when the two major parties colluded to suppress the threat of third-party insurgencies and when complex registration schemes were adopted both to minimize fraud and to reduce the electoral participation of blacks and immigrant workers. Over the past century, election rules have been forged through partisan rivalry, with spells of conflict ending truces and compromises that permitted the parties to mobilize their most loyal voters while imposing burdens on everyone else. That’s how we ended up with Republican officials correcting the absentee-ballot forms of their voters, while their Democratic counterparts were instructing voters in Duval County (erroneously) to put a punch on every page. So much for the voice of the people.