Georgia Votes, Part I

Below is Part I of my voting rights proposal for Georgia, Georgia Votes. In this section, I discuss the history of voting rights as well as attempts, both historical and contemporary, at vote suppression.


Introduction

The right to vote is the most vital element of a properly functioning democracy. Without the ability to speak and be heard, a democracy must necessarily crumble, its spirit hollowed out and made false. For a democracy to be truly responsive to the will of the people, they must have the ability to cast their votes easily; they must be confident that their vote will be counted; and their vote must carry no more and no less authority than any other.

A History of Voting in the United States

The right to vote in this country has been steadily expanded to include more and more people, though these achievements were often painful, hard-fought, and too long in coming. At this country’s founding, of course, only white landed men were allowed to vote. After the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed. It declared that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” thus opening up the vote to former slaves.

The power establishment, especially in the South, saw the newly enfranchised black population as a threat to their power, and sought to set up barriers to vote, in a pattern that is sadly familiar to this day. After Louisiana passed the first “Grandfather Clause” (which guaranteed the right to vote to any man whose grandfather would have been eligible to vote) in 1896, the percentage of black voters fell from 44.8% to 4%.[1] The implementation of literacy tests (Figure 1), poll taxes, and proof-of-residency tests systematically disenfranchised poor and minority voters. By 1910, only 0.5% of eligible black men were registered to vote in Louisiana.[2]

Screenshot (99)

Fig. 2: A literacy test used in Louisiana.

During this time, women were still prohibited from voting, and would not gain the right to vote until the Women’s Suffrage movement led to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The 19th Amendment declared that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

It took three groundbreaking acts to break the back of Jim Crow and voter suppression: the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964, which stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote…shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax;” the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

 The Voting Rights Act of 1965

On May 25, 1965, the Senate approved the Voting Rights Act (or the VRA) with a bipartisan majority (77-19), and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on August 6. Among other things, the VRA declared that “No voting qualifications or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color;” that “no citizen shall be denied the right to vote in any Federal, State, or local election because of his failure to comply with any test or device in any State;” and that “no State or political subdivision shall provide registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots, only in the English language if the Director of the Census determines…that more than 5 percent of the citizens of voting age of such State or political subdivision are members of a single language minority.”

The VRA was intended to enforce the terms of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and between 1965 and 1967, African-American voter registration (in states covered by the Act) jumped 22.8%[3]. In the 20 years after the passage of the VRA, the share of African-Americans in the legislative houses in Southern states went from .2% to 9.9%[4].  In 1970 there were 1,469 African-American elected officials in the country; in 2011, there were more than 10,000[5].

The VRA has indisputably been instrumental in increasing the rate of political participation among African-Americans and other minority groups, and its passage was nothing less than a triumph for democracy.

The State of Voting Today

The State of Representation

In a truly representative democracy, we might expect our elected representatives to match the population of the electorate, both in terms of mindset and demographics. Women make up 50.8% of the American population[6]; African-Americans, 13.3%[7]; Hispanics and Latinos, 17.6%[8]. Yet women are only 20% of the House of Representatives[9]. African-Americans are only 11%[10]. Only 9% of Congressmen are Hispanic or Latino[11]. It is clear that Congress, which is meant to be an accountable and representative body, does not reflect the makeup of the country as a whole.

This trend, in which our elected officials increasingly find themselves at odds with the will of the electorate, is also visible from a policy perspective. According to the Pew Research Center, 53% of Americans support legalizing marijuana; 74% of Americans support the “no-fly/no-buy policy” (a policy by which people on the “no-fly” list are barred from purchasing firearms); 80% of Americans say that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States; 69% of Americans say maintaining current levels of entitlement spending is more important than managing the deficit; and 61% of Americans say abortion should be legalized.[12] Yet marijuana is not only still illegal, but the current Attorney General is seeking to roll back statewide efforts to chart a path towards legalization; the “no-fly/no-buy” policy is not in effect; the Department of Homeland Security is preparing to deport more undocumented immigrants than ever; Congress is attempting to pass a budget that will cut Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicaid; and politicians are attempting to reverse Roe v. Wade, either through legislation or the courts.

Whatever your personal politics, whatever your opinions on these issues, it must be acknowledged: our representative democracy isn’t.

There are any number of explanations for this phenomenon. It could be argued that increased self-sorting has resulted in geographic areas of significant partisan polarization, eliminating the possibility of moderate candidates or compromise. A case could be made for the prevalence of “dark money” in elections, largely untraceable funds from high-dollar donors that skew elections towards extremes. But, as this report argues, there is perhaps no greater threat to representative democracy than modern attempts at voter suppression.

Voter Fraud and Voter IDs

“You have people that are registered who are dead, who are illegals, who are in two states. You have people registered in two states. They’re registered in a New York and a New Jersey. They vote twice. There are millions of votes, in my opinion.” –Donald Trump

I have actually, having worked before on a campaign in New Hampshire, I can tell you that this issue of busing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics. It’s very real. It’s very serious. This morning, on this show, is not the venue for me to lay out all the evidence. –Stephen Miller

The specter of voter fraud is raised, repeatedly and enthusiastically, by individuals at the highest level of government. The President has claimed—over and over, and without any evidence—that “three to five million” invalid votes were cast for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, has found nine cases of illegal voting in two years, despite claiming, before the State Legislature, that “thousands” were voting illegally (Kobach is now the head of a Presidential Commission to investigate claims of voter fraud).[13]

Even among politicians who do not make such sweeping claims, there is broad support for the policy that anyone attempting to vote should be required to show a valid photo ID. These “voter ID laws,” the reasoning goes, will eliminate the possibility of voter fraud. Unfortunately, voter ID laws are not only a solution in search of a problem, but they are an insidious method for disenfranchising the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and minority communities.

Voter ID Laws as a Tool of Voter Suppression

For many politicians at the local, state, and federal level, the lack of in-person voter fraud is no reason to reconsider the idea that voting should require a picture ID is an article of faith. “We have to have an ID to buy alcohol,” they say, “or drive a car, or purchase cigarettes.” Voting, their reasoning goes, is so important that it must be protected; the entire electoral system would be vulnerable to corruption if these restrictions were relaxed.

Despite somewhat breathless assertions, in-person voter fraud—also called “voter impersonation,” where an individual goes to a polling location and pretends to be someone else—is vanishingly rare, virtually nonexistent, and from a statistical point of view, utterly irrelevant. In one five-year span, the Justice Department won 86 convictions for voter fraud, amounting to a fraud rate of .00000013%.[14] Another study, this one by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, found a staggeringly low 31 “credible allegations” of in-person voter fraud between 2000 and 2014, amounting to a fraud rate of .00000003%.[15] Conversely, that same study found that at least 3,000 otherwise legitimate ballots were rejected because of a lack of some form of positive identification.[16]

Lawmakers might regard those statistics with some regret—it is unfortunate, undemocratic, and un-American to prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to have their opinions heard. But even though the numbers might be troubling, strict voter ID laws remain. After all, lawmakers reason, this is the 21st century. Everybody has a driver’s license. Unfortunately, the data does not support this view.

According to the Brennan Center, as many as 21 million Americans “do not have government-issued photo identification.” [17]  Furthermore:

  • Elderly citizens disproportionately lack photo identification. According to the Brennan Center’s survey, 18% of Americans age 65 and older do not have a “current government-issued photo ID.”[18]
  • Minority citizens are less likely to possess valid photo IDs. 25% of voting-age African Americans lacked a valid photo ID, compared to 8% of white voting-age Americans[19].
  • Low-income voters are less likely to have photo IDs. Voting-age Americans earning less than $35,000 per year are “more than twice as likely to lack current government-issued photo identification as those earning more than $35,000.”[20]
  • Young voters are less likely to have upto-date identification. The Brennan Center found that as many as 18 percent of citizens aged 18-24 do not have photo ID with current address and name.[21]

The same survey by the Brennan Center indicates that a simple push for voter registration might not be the answer. In most states, including Georgia, registration requires proof of citizenship; however, the Brennan Center found that as many as 13 million Americans “do not have ready access to citizenship documents” like their passport, naturalization papers, or birth certificates.[22] This includes the same statistical cohorts likely to lack a valid photo ID; low-income citizens, the elderly, and minority citizens.

All over the country, restricting access to the ballot box, all in the name of preventing voter fraud, resulted in mass disenfranchisement. In Wisconsin, strict voter ID laws reduced turnout by over 200,000 votes for the 2016 election.[23] A law recently passed in Iowa might make a quarter of a million people ineligible to vote.[24] In fact, in North Carolina, one such attempt was struck down by a federal appeals court in July of 2016, saying the law “target[s] African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”[25]

Make no mistake: voter fraud is not a threat to democracy. Voter suppression, whatever name is uses, is.


[1] American Civil Liberties Union, “History of the Voting Rights Act.”

[2] Pildes, Richard. “Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon.” Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 17. 2000.

[3] Tokaji, Daniel P. “The New Vote Denial: Where Election Reform Meets the Voting Rights Act.” South Carolina Law Review, Vol. 57. Summer 2006.

[4] Grofman, Bernard & Lisa Handley. “The Impact of Voting Rights on Black Representation in Southern State Legislatures.” Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 16. February 1991.

[5] Eilperin, Juliet. “What’s Changed For African-Americans, By The Numbers?” The Washington Post. August 22, 2013.

[6] Census.gov. “Quick Facts.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] U.S. House of Representatives Press Gallery. “Demographics.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pew Research Center.

[13] Strauss, Ben. “Kris Kobach Came After Me For An Honest Mistake.” Politico, May 21, 2017.

[14] Lipton, Eric & Ian Urbina, “In 5-Year Effort, Scant Evidence of Voter Fraud.” New York Times, April 12, 2007

[15] Levitt, Justin, “A Comprehensive Investigation of Voter Impersonation Finds 31 Credible Instances Out Of 1 Billion Ballots Cast.” Washington Post, August 6, 2014

[16] Ibid.

[17] Brennan Center for Justice. “Citizens Without Proof: A Survey of Americans’ Possession of Documentary Proof of Citizenship and Photo Identification.” Voting Rights & Elections Series, November 2006.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Berman, Ari, “Wisconsin’s Voter-ID Law Suppressed 200,000 Votes.” The Nation, May 9, 2017

[24] Berman, Ari. “Iowa’s New Voter-ID Law Would Have Disenfranchised My Grandmother.” The Nation, April 13, 2017.

[25] Wines, Michael & Alan Binder, “Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down North Carolina Voter ID Requirement.” The New York Times, July 29, 2016.



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  1. News of the Morning 6.18.17 – The Georgia Wonk
  2. Georgia Votes, Part II: Redistricting – The Georgia Wonk

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