Nation Topics - Voter Rights
News and Features
While controversy rages across the country over whether computerized voting machines may result in lost or manipulated votes, there is another change in the election system this year that could l
Electronic counts, unaudited touch-screen ballots, enhance opportunities for fraud.
The Democratic platform approved this week by convention delegates in Boston contains strong language regarding the party's commitment to protect the right of Americans to vote--and have their vo
When Donna Brazile learned in late May that the Justice Department might
sue three Florida counties over voting rights violations that
disfranchised minority citizens in the 2000 presidential election, the
woman who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign called her sister in
Florida's Seminole County. In one of the milder examples of the
harassment suffered by thousands of African-American and Latino voters
in the disputed election, Brazile's sister had been forced to produce
three forms of identification--instead of the one required under Florida
law--before she could cast her ballot.
Informed that the Feds were riding to the rescue eighteen months after
the fact, Brazile's sister asked, "What took 'em so long?" When the
Justice Department finishes its tepid intervention, the question likely
to be asked is, Why did they bother?
When it comes to missing signs of serious trouble, failing to respond to
clear threats and then botching the cleanup of the mess, the Justice
Department's response to the 2000 election crisis has been at least as
inept as the much-criticized terrorist-tracking performance of the FBI
and the CIA. Although it is charged with enforcing Voting Rights Act
protections, Justice was nowhere to be found when its presence could
have made a difference--not just for Florida but for a nation that had
its presidential election settled by a 5-to-4 decision of the US Supreme
Immediately after the November 7, 2000, election, minority voters who
had never committed crimes complained of having had their names removed
from voting rolls in a purge of "ex-felons," of being denied translation
services required by law, of seriously flawed ballots, of polling places
that lacked adequate resources and competent personnel, and of
harassment by poll workers and law-enforcement officials [see Gregory
Palast, "Florida's 'Disappeared Voters,'" February 5, 2001, and John
Lantigua, "How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida," April 30, 2001].
But after newspaper analyses uncovered evidence of disproportional
disfranchisement of minority voters, and even after a US Commission on
Civil Rights review condemned Florida's Governor, Jeb Bush, and its
Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, for running an election marked by
"injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency," another year passed before
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd told the Senate Judiciary
Committee in May that the civil rights division was preparing to act.
"Act" is a generous characterization. Eleven thousand election-related
complaints have been whittled down to five potential lawsuits--targeting
three Florida counties, along with St. Louis and Nashville. The Florida
suits focus on the failure of Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola county
officials to provide Spanish- and Creole-language assistance to voters.
Issues of accessibility for the disabled and flawed registration
procedures are also likely to be addressed. And, encouragingly, Boyd
told the Judiciary Committee that his department would examine the
purging of eligible voters from election rolls in a process overseen by
But don't expect to see Harris--now a Congressional candidate--in court
anytime soon. Boyd wants to settle his suits before they are filed,
through negotiations with local officials. That will bring limited
reform to three of Florida's sixty-seven counties and perhaps a bit more
restraint on the part of the Republican-controlled Secretary of State's
office. There is no real evidence, however, that John Ashcroft's Justice
Department is going to call anyone in Florida--least of all the
President's brother or his political allies--to account for the
widespread disfranchisement of minority voters.
Justice Department attorneys continue to limit the scope of an
investigation that should be examining the collapse of voting rights
protections in all Florida counties, from Palm Beach in the south to
Duval in the north and Gadsden in the west--where as many as one in
eight ballots cast by minority voters was discarded. In addition, Jeb
Bush and the Florida legislature continue to reject needed reforms and
to stall the allocation of sufficient funds to bring voting machinery in
predominantly minority precincts up to par with equipment in
predominantly white precincts. And the US House and Senate remain
deadlocked over legislation that would promote and fund reforms in other
states--like Illinois, which had a higher rate of ballot spoilage than
Florida. Until the Justice Department and state and federal legislators
get serious about making real reforms, the 2002 and 2004 elections won't
be any more fair or functional than the flawed election of 2000.
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.
For years many of us have called for a national conversation about what it means to be a multiracial democracy. We have enumerated the glaring flaws inherent in our winner-take-all form of voting, which has produced a steady decline in voter participation, underrepresentation of racial minorities in office, lack of meaningful competition and choice in most elections, and the general failure of politics to mobilize, inform and inspire half the eligible electorate. But nothing changed. Democracy was an asterisk in political debate, typically encompassed in a vague reference to "campaign finance reform." Enter Florida.
The fiasco there provides a rare opportunity to rethink and improve our voting practices in a way that reflects our professed desire to have "every vote count." This conversation has already begun, as several highly educated communities in Palm Beach experienced the same sense of systematic disfranchisement that beset the area's poorer and less-educated communities of color. "It felt like Birmingham last night," Mari Castellanos, a Latina activist in Miami, wrote in an e-mail describing a mammoth rally at the 14,000-member New Birth Baptist Church, a primarily African-American congregation in Miami. "The sanctuary was standing room only. So were the overflow rooms and the school hall, where congregants connected via large TV screens. The people sang and prayed and listened. Story after story was told of voters being turned away at the polls, of ballots being destroyed, of NAACP election literature being discarded at the main post office, of Spanish-speaking poll workers being sent to Creole precincts and vice-versa.... Union leaders, civil rights activists, Black elected officials, ministers, rabbis and an incredibly passionate and inspiring Marlene Bastiene--president of the Haitian women's organization--spoke for two or three minutes each, reminding the assembly of the price their communities had paid for the right to vote and vowing not to be disfranchised ever again."
We must not let this once-in-a-generation moment pass without addressing the basic questions these impassioned citizens are raising: Who votes, how do they vote, whom do they vote for, how are their votes counted and what happens after the voting? These questions go to the very legitimacy of our democratic procedures, not just in Florida but nationwide--and the answers could lead to profound but eminently achievable reforms.
§ Who votes--and doesn't? As with the rest of the nation, in Florida only about half of all adults vote, about the same as the national average. Even more disturbing, nonvoters are increasingly low-income, young and less educated. This trend persists despite the Voting Rights Act, which since 1970 has banned literacy tests nationwide as prerequisites for voting--a ban enacted by Congress and unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court.
We are a democracy that supposedly believes in universal suffrage, and yet the differential turnout between high-income and low-income voters is far greater than in Europe, where it ranges from 5 to 10 percent. More than two-thirds of people in America with incomes greater than $50,000 vote, compared with one-third of those with incomes under $10,000. Those convicted of a felony are permanently banned from voting in Florida and twelve other states. In Florida alone, this year more than 400,000 ex-felons, about half of them black, were denied the opportunity to vote. Canada, on the other hand, takes special steps to register former prisoners and bring them into full citizenship.
§ How do they vote? Florida now abounds with stories of long poll lines, confusing ballots and strict limitations on how long voters could spend in the voting booth. The shocking number of invalid ballots--more ballots were "spoiled" in the presidential race than were cast for "spoiler" Ralph Nader--are a direct result of antiquated voting mechanics that would shame any nation, let alone one of the world's oldest democracies. Even the better-educated older voters of Palm Beach found, to their surprise, how much they had in common with more frequently disfranchised populations. Given how many decisions voters are expected to make in less than five minutes in the polling booth, it is common sense that the polls should be open over a weekend, or at least for twenty-four hours, and that Election Day should be a national holiday. By highlighting our wretched record on voting practices, Florida raises the obvious question: Do we really want large voter participation?
§ Whom do they vote for? Obviously, Florida voters chose among Al Gore, George Bush and a handful of minor-party candidates who, given their status as unlikely to win, were generally ignored and at best chastised as spoilers. But as many voters are now realizing, in the presidential race they were voting not for the candidates whose name they selected (or attempted to select) but for "electors" to that opaque institution, the Electoral College. Our constitutional framers did some things well--chiefly dulling the edge of winner-take-all elections through institutions that demand coalition-building, compromise and recognition of certain minority voices--but the Electoral College was created on illegitimate grounds and has no place in a modern democracy.
As Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar argues, the Electoral College was established as a device to boost the power of Southern states in the election of the President. The same "compromise" that gave Southern states more House members by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation (while giving them none of the privileges of citizenship) gave those states Electoral College votes in proportion to their Congressional delegation. This hypocrisy enhanced the Southern states' Electoral College percentage, and as a result, Virginia slaveowners controlled the presidency for thirty-two of our first thirty-six years.
Its immoral origins notwithstanding, the Electoral College was soon justified as a deliberative body that would choose among several candidates and assure the voice of small geographic areas. But under the Electoral College, voters in small states have more than just a voice; indeed their say often exceeds that of voters in big states. In Wyoming one vote in the Electoral College corresponds to 71,000 voters; in Florida, one electoral vote corresponds to 238,000 voters. At minimum we should eliminate the extra bias that adding electors for each of two senators gives our smallest states. As Robert Naiman of the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports, allowing each state only as many electors as it has members in the House of Representatives would mean, for example, that even if Bush won Oregon and Florida, he would have 216 and Gore would have 220 electoral votes.
Today its backers still argue that the Electoral College is necessary to insure that small states are not ignored by the presidential candidates. Yet the many states--including small ones--that weren't close in this election were neglected by both campaigns. Some of the nation's biggest states, with the most people of color, saw very little presidential campaigning and get-out-the-vote activity. Given their lopsided results this year, we can expect California, Illinois, New York, Texas and nearly all Southern states to be shunned in the 2004 campaign.
§ How are their votes counted? The presidency rests on a handful of votes in Florida because allocation of electoral votes is winner-take-all--if Gore wins by ten votes out of 6 million, he will win 100 percent of the state's twenty-five electoral votes. The ballots cast for a losing candidate are always "invalid" for the purposes of representation; only those cast for the winner actually "count." Thus winner-take-all elections underrepresent the voice of the minority and exaggerate the power of one state's razor-thin majority. Winner-take-all is the great barrier to representation of political and racial minorities at both the federal and the state level. No blacks or Latinos serve in the US Senate or in any governor's mansion. Third-party candidates did not win a single state legislature race except for a handful in Vermont.
Given the national questioning of the Electoral College sparked by the anomalous gap between the popular vote and the college's vote in the presidential election, those committed to real representative democracy now have a chance to shine a spotlight on the glaring flaws and disfranchisement inherent in winner-take-all practices and to propose important reforms.
What we need are election rules that encourage voter turnout rather than suppress it. A system of proportional representation--which would allocate seats to parties based on their proportion of the total vote--would more fairly reflect intense feeling within the electorate, mobilize more people to participate and even encourage those who do participate to do so beyond just the single act of voting on Election Day. Most democracies around the world have some form of proportional voting and manage to engage a much greater percentage of their citizens in elections. Proportional representation in South Africa, for example, allows the white Afrikaner parties and the ANC to gain seats in the national legislature commensurate with the total number of votes cast for each party. Under this system, third parties are a plausible alternative. Moreover, to allow third parties to run presidential candidates without being "spoilers," some advocate instant-runoff elections in which voters would rank their choices for President. That way, even voters whose top choice loses the election could influence the race among the other candidates.
Winner-take-all elections, by contrast, encourage the two major parties to concentrate primarily on the "undecideds" and to take tens of millions of dollars of corporate and special-interest contributions to broadcast ads on the public airwaves appealing to the center of the political spectrum. Winner-take-all incentives discourage either of the two major parties from trying to learn, through organizing and door-knocking, how to mobilize the vast numbers of disengaged poor and working-class voters. Rather than develop a vision, they produce a product and fail to build political capacity from the ground up.
§ What happens after the voting? Our nation is more focused on elections now than it has been for decades; yet on any given Sunday, more people will watch professional football than voted this November. What democracy demands is a system of elections that enables minor parties to gain a voice in the legislature and encourages the development of local political organizations that educate and mobilize voters.
Between elections, grassroots organizations could play an important monitoring role now unfulfilled by the two major parties. If the Bush campaign is right that large numbers of ballots using the same butterfly format were thrown out in previous elections in Palm Beach, then something is wrong with more than the ballot. For those Democratic senior citizens in Palm Beach, it was not enough that their election supervisor was a Democrat. They needed a vibrant local organization that could have served as a watchdog, alerting voters and election officials that there were problems with the ballot. No one should inadvertently vote for two candidates; the same watchdog organizations should require ballot-counting machines like those in some states that notify the voter of such problems before he or she leaves the booth. Voters should be asked, as on the popular TV quiz show, "Is that your final answer?" And surely we cannot claim to be a functioning democracy when voters are turned away from the polls or denied assistance in violation of both state and federal law.
Before the lessons of Florida are forgotten, let us use this window of opportunity to forge a strong pro-democracy coalition to rally around "one vote, one value." The value of a vote depends on its being fairly counted but also on its counting toward the election of the person the voter chose as her representative. This can happen only if we recognize the excesses of winner-take-all voting and stop exaggerating the power of the winner by denying the loser any voice at all.
- How America Became a Third World Country
- Why Prosecuting Ariel Castro for Murder Won’t Prevent Violence Against Pregnant Women
- The Secret Donors Behind the Center for American Progress and Other Think Tanks
- The First Couple’s Post-Racial Bootstraps Myth
- Hundreds of Non-Union Workers With Taxpayer-Supported Jobs Plan to Strike Today