Voting: The Stepchild of American Rights
For something as fundamentally crucial to democracy as the right to vote, the current state of suffrage receives considerably less attention. While the convoluted politics and horse-race journalism that currently muddle American presidential elections are at times hard to see through, voting is the foundation upon which this system of governance is made prosperous and worthwhile. But compared to countries that have compulsory voter laws or just enjoy regularly high voter turnout (e.g. Belgium, Turkey, Sweden, etc.), the United States appears to be only a leader in political apathy. However, with the rise of a new cohort of eligible voters, Millennials are on the forefront of a larger movement questioning the integrity of voting rights and disenfranchisement in primary procedures.
Although amendments to the Constitution have been ratified to address voting requirements (e.g. the 14th, 15th, 17th, and 19th Amendments), specifics have always been ambiguous and under the discretion of state governments; therefore, state-issued voter laws are naturally more stringent than federal requirements. While protecting the integrity of the ballot box against potential fraud or corruption is critical to ensuring that the electorate’s will is accurately represented, overprotectiveness has proven to distort election results as well– in nearly all cases to an extent far greater than potential fraud.
Last month’s primary in Arizona is one of such disastrous cases. In order to save money on election expenditures, Maricopa County reduced its polling locations by seventy percent, equating to one polling site for every 21,000 voters. The result was obscene wait times, errors in voter registration, and a particularly noticeable burden on black, Hispanic, and Native American communities. In downtown Phoenix, hundreds stood in line for over five hours after polling places closed, only to have media project Clinton and Trump as the primary winners. Despite assertions by Maricopa County officials that no intentional efforts were made to keep people from voting and that the circumstances were “just a huge miscalculation,” the Democratic National Committee, along with the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are suing the state of Arizona for disenfranchising specific demographics of Arizona’s electorate.
The over-preventative legislation implemented to combat the practically non-existent issue of in-person voter fraud has only hurt the integrity of the ballot it claims to protect. One would expect that if voting requirements are made more stringent, the government in all its ability will help the community meet those same requirements. This could take the form of improving access to the state’s definition of an acceptable form of identification, overhauling a bureaucratic voter registration system and database, or providing increased education and funding for specific communities that suffer from lower election turnout. Instead, legislation passed by North Carolinian Republican majorities in 2013 broadly cuts back early voting, restricts private groups from conducting voter-registration drives, and eliminates election-day voter registration, making it one of the strictest voter ID rules in the country. When roughly five percent of registered voters still do not have an acceptable form of government-issued ID to cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential primary, it becomes obvious that necessary post-implementary steps are not being taken. The responsibility of governing does not stop when legislation is passed; it continues past implementation and until the impact of such legislation is an objective improvement for the community in which it affects.
This undue burden on the specific parts of the community is apparent in Wisconsin, where new voter ID laws were estimated to affect at least 300,000 people before its hotly contested primary in April. Voters, such as the elderly who have expired driver's licenses, younger voters who may or may not attend university, and the poor, are feeling increasingly overlooked by the quasi-democratic electoral procedures of their respective parties -- a political move Sanders calls “not only shameful” but, “un-American in the deepest sense of the word.”
While disagreement over the specifics of voting eligibility seems split between left and right, the frustration with current electoral procedures transcends party division or political ideology. With the rise of Donald Trump and his popularity among disgruntled Republican and conservative voters, the ballot’s effectiveness as an intermediary between ordinary people and government is under newfound scrutiny – this time from the right. After losing all of Colorado’s delegates at the GOP assembly in Colorado Springs to Ted Cruz, Trump levied heavy criticism of the state’s caucus-style primary, calling it "a rigged, disgusting, dirty system” and that “great people being disenfranchised by politicians”. Using rhetoric reminiscent of Sanders’ anti-establishment platform, he also asserted during a campaign rally in Syracuse, New York that the Republican nomination process “is worse than [the Democrats]” because Americans “are not even voting, the bosses are picking the delegates”.
While knowing and campaigning within the given parameters of a pre-existing primary system is an unavoidable and necessary measure of running in a presidential race, the feeling that the “game is rigged” is important to address– especially considering the lack of national discourse on the state of voting rights. The federal government has a moral obligation ensure that voting remains as accessible and efficient as possible without compromising the integrity of the ballot. By continuing to relegate the right to vote as a kind of stepchild in the family of American rights, the result is a discouraged electorate skeptical of a hyper-partisan system too out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans.
- Samuel Kim