BLANK: US Democracy Under Siege
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012
Updated: Thursday, March 29, 2012 21:03
There will be a dark side to this year’s presidential elections: the precarious state of contemporary American democracy due to the confluence of two trends.
The first threat to democracy is the growing disenfranchisement of large swathes of the American population, specifically in the forms of various legal measures implemented by states. These measures serve to make voting difficult or impossible for certain groups.
Throughout American history, the right to vote has been contested. At various times, people who didn’t own property, women and racial minorities have been disenfranchised and forced to fight for their voting rights.
Unfortunately, the problem of voter disenfranchisement continues.
This November, nearly four million Americans will be barred from voting because of a past criminal conviction, despite having completed their prison sentences and repaid their debts to society.
In 11 states, including the swing states of Virginia, Florida, Iowa and Nevada, people with felony convictions are disenfranchised for life, even after they finish their prison time.
In a country where the criminal justice system disproportionately targets minorities — blacks constitute 12.6 percent of the American population, but account for nearly 40 percent of the prison population — it should come as no surprise that racial minorities are disproportionately affected by criminal disenfranchisement.
As the historian Alexander Keyssar documents, these laws emerged after the Civil War, when slavery was abolished and blacks were given the right to vote. Criminal disenfranchisement was implemented alongside literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses as part of a concerted effort to prevent blacks from voting.
In 1901, Virginia politician Carter Glass described felony disenfranchisement as a means to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor,” in Virginia. Today, due to criminal disenfranchisement, 13 percent of black men in America have lost the right to vote.
Recently, several states have moved to further restrict voting rights by passing voter ID laws. These laws require voters to show certain approved forms of identification in order to vote on election day. Like the literacy tests and poll taxes of the past, these laws appear race neutral. However, in practice, they have a disproportionate effect on poor and minority voters.
Obtaining a form of identification, like a driver’s license, costs both time and money. Going to the Department of Motor Vehicles takes time due to travel and long waits. It costs money to obtain both the license itself and a birth certificate, which most states require to get a driver’s license.
The reality is that voter ID laws place a disproportionate and onerous burden on poor Americans. Poor and minority Americans are less likely to own cars, and thus may not have driver’s licenses.
Many poor Americans work long hours and might not have the time to go to the DMV. Furthermore, DMVs are often located far from poor and minority communities, placing a further burden on them. Finally, the financial cost of obtaining a license places a disproportionate burden on the poor.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 11 percent of eligible voters lack proper identification under these voter ID laws. However, among blacks, the number amounts to nearly 25 percent.
Voter ID laws represent a hidden poll tax. Instead of having to pay at the voting booth, Americans are now required to pay to get the proper identification to vote. Thus, more Americans are disenfranchised, limiting American democracy.
The second threat to democracy is the decline of the American middle class and rising income inequality in the United States.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville noted the link between the middle-class and democracy.
According to Harvard economist Richard Freeman, the decline of America’s middle class is a threat to democracy. With their increasing wealth, the rich wield disproportionate influence on American politics simply by pouring money into political campaigns. As income inequality grows, the rich will gain more political power.
Louis Brandeis said, “We can either have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
The cumulative effect of these two trends poses a serious threat to American democracy. Voter disenfranchisement takes away the rights of many to vote, while income inequality undermines political equality, an essential feature of democracy.
Sam Blank is a senior in the College. IMPERFECT UNION appears every other Friday.