Throughout the history of the U.S., citizens have fought to expand suffrage to women and African Americans by eliminating discriminatory polling policies. Despite rising to become a ‘champion of democracy’ in the world, voter turnout in presidential and midterm elections remains far lower than in many fellow democratic countries.
In the 2012 election, fewer than 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, meaning millions of Americans eligible to vote in presidential and midterm elections fail to do so. This number typically drops to 40 percent or lower in midterm elections. For years, political scientists have been seeking the root causes of such poor turnout.
The problem is often blamed on apathetic or disinterested voters, but voter suppression expanded by recent state voter ID laws and bans on same-day registration could drive turnouts further down. Even those who make it to their polling place with the proper documentation are often greeted by long wait times, which lasted up to eight hours at some voting places in Florida during the 2012 election.
Some political scientists claim it’s part of a losing strategy by Republicans who remain the principal supporters of voter restrictions.
“I think in the long term this is going to be disastrous for the Republican party,” DeWayne Lucas, a professor of political science at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, told Mint Press News. “In the short term, there are going to be some gains. Long term … I think the African American community will see this as further proof that they can’t trust the Republican agenda. African Americans have long been champions of expanding the right to vote. What they see now is a party restricting voting,”
Many democratic countries including Austria, Belgium and Italy average 90 percent voter turnout rates. High levels like these can be chalked up to mandatory voting in some developed democracies and automatic registration in others.
The U.S. has been marked by a patchwork of state and federal laws that some critics claim make voting more complicated than in other democracies.
Supporters of voter ID claim it will cut down on incidents of voter fraud and help to streamline the voting process. Many political scientists expect that it will actually reduce access to the polls.
“The evidence isn’t very strong that these have had a large effect on turnout, it’s a small effect. But understand that even a small effect is still negative and undesirable. We should allow everyone who wants to vote the opportunity. These are generally lower income people and young people who are affected,” Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University, told Mint Press News. “We do have evidence in Georgia that … 10,000-12,000 people have to cast a provisional ballot because they don’t have the necessary ID.”
In some states, data indicates that Black communities are disproportionately affected by voter ID legislation. Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to increasing voter turnout, published a report in April using data from the state Board of Elections showing that 318,643 out of 6.4 million North Carolina voters don’t have a driver’s license or identity card issued by North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles.
Despite comprising 23 percent of all registered voters in the state, African Americans represent 34 percent of voters lacking a North Carolina photo ID, according to these data.
“We haven’t seen a lot of research on the exact impact of voter ID but we are expecting sharp declines in turnout. Another aspect of it is the types of voter ID that are required. Not everyone drives and particularly low income, minority voters tend to not have licenses,” Lucas said.
Restrictions signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) go even further. The Los Angeles Times reports that the state’s new voting laws shorten early voting by a week, end same-day registration, increase the number of poll observers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility and eliminate pre-registration initiatives for high school students. The ACLU and the NAACP have both filed lawsuits claiming that they are discriminatory.
Many of these new restrictions in Southern states came shortly after Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was repealed by the Supreme Court in June. Previously Section 4 required 9 states and several counties to seek permission from the federal government before making changes to their state voting laws.
The states Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia were targeted because of their histories of discriminatory voting practices making it more difficult for Blacks to cast ballots.
The repeal has been decried by many civil liberties and racial justice groups as a step backward that could open the door to further voting restrictions. Attorney General Eric H. Holder has vowed to challenge the repeal.
“[Holder’s challenge] depends alot on the courts. A lot of us we surprised by the decision. The immediate response in Texas and North Carolina was to move quickly and enact laws that would restrict voting. What we have sort of seen as a sort of delayed reaction that the Department of Justice is going to pursue those case. The challenge in a sense becomes that his office now has a higher burden to prove, to show that these laws are discriminatory,” Lucas said. “Under a voting rights act. [Holder] now has to make stronger clearer arguments in each of these jurisdictions. They have to work their way up through the system. It’s a process that can take months to enact.”
Long wait times
Long before the proliferation of voter ID, electoral irregularities and long wait times at polling places have become a regular part of the news cycle during presidential elections. Poll watchers claim that would-be voters often leave without casting a ballot when they are unable to do so in a timely manner.
“I’ve seen it myself when I have done poll watching. People standing in line who were dissuaded from voting, and left. … This has happened when the average wait time is just 15 minutes. Compare this with Florida where some people wait hours. It’s plausible that there are a good number of people every election dissuaded by long lines,” McDonald said.
A joint study by an Ohio State University professor and The Orlando Sentinel, concluded that more than 200,000 voters in Florida “gave up in frustration” without voting during the 2012 election. Some reported waiting eight hours just to cast a ballot.
“When I got there, the line was around the building,” said Jonathan Piccolo, 33, who said he had waited nearly eight hours to cast a ballot in Miami-Dade County on the Monday before Election Day.
“It’s one of the most sacred rights you have,” Piccolo said “They should make it as painless as possible.”
The sweeping electoral changes mean that long lines could come to other states in future elections.“There are plans to close polling places in Appalachia and traditionally Black areas. If they go through with these, we will likely see negative effects on turnout. There is only so much the Republicans can do to suppress votes,” McDonald said.
Is there anything to be hopeful about? Some states with higher rates of voter participation could show the way for reform.
“Some states have habitually higher voter turnout, in places like Minnesota. Minnesota is perennially at the top of the list. States like Minnesota have election day registration. In states with election day registration, voters only have to cross one hurdle instead of two. It might get you anywhere from 5-7 percentage points’ increase,” McDonald said.
“It reasonably could be better civics education. Minnesota is one of the higher educated states in the country. Programs that would be aimed toward more civic education might be a more reasonable way to increase turnout,” McDonald said.
This article originally appeared on MintPress on Sept. 3, 2013.
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