Slipping back to Selma: Voter Suppression on Both Sides of The Aisle

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.

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.

The Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments cement our Constitution’s commitment to universal suffrage. So there it is in writing: all American citizens have an inalienable right to franchise. But American history suggests that this right does not always translate into a reality. While Constitutional amendments, Congressional legislation, and federal court decisions venerate and protect universal suffrage, voter suppression continues to ail our democracy, even today.

Currently in the United States, the two major parties differ in their philosophies surrounding voter participation. Democrats deem universal participation in elections to be of supreme value: as FiveThirtyEight explains, the Democratic worldview is that, “All voices ought to be represented in the electoral sphere, so the government should not put up any unnecessary barriers to participation.” On the other hand, Republicans believe that small barriers on participation can help a functioning of democracy: only those with a vested interest will engage themselves enough to vote.

As  a result, Republicans have pushed for national voter ID laws which purportedly eliminate fraud and legitimize electoral infrastructure. FiveThirtyEight explains the Republican view that, “if an ID requirement deters people who aren’t particularly well-informed or invested in the political process, this might be a net benefit.”However, along with this philosophical motive, Republicans may want to lower turnout to favor their electoral prospects. Richard Posner, a conservative U.S. circuit judge admits, “there is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting … to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.”

During the 2016 Presidential election, for example, state and county Republican officials in North Carolina lobbied members of 17 county election boards to decrease the number of early-voting sites and to keep existing sites open for fewer hours on weekends and in evenings – times that see disproportionately high turnout by Democrats. While this endeavor failed, it is a clear example of Republicans seeking to limit voters’ opportunity to exercise their right to franchise.

Even more frighteningly, a senior official in the Trump campaign divulged that, “We have three major voter suppression operations under way.” These efforts are targeted at three groups Clinton must win overwhelmingly in order to become president: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. For the impending Presidential election, the most glaring example of such efforts lies in North Carolina where Republicans have purged thousands of registered voters from the voter rolls, the majority of whom are black Democrats.

It is evident that Republican efforts to restrain universal voter participation – whether driven by party philosophy or desire for electoral ambitions – are plenty. Hillary Clinton is shameless in her assertion that “Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of?” Given the fervor of her accusation, Democrats perceive that voter suppression is driven only by those across the aisle. But this idea is a fallacy. In truth, both parties – regardless of their platform and philosophy – are guilty of committing egregious voter suppression.

In April of 2016, a voter purging scandal led by the Democratic party went remarkably unnoticed. During the presidential primary in New York over 120,000 voters were removed from the rolls. Many registered Democrats found that their affiliation had been changed to unaffiliated, thus prohibiting them from voting in New York’s closed primary. Upon analyzing public lists of purged voters, WNYC found that “Hispanic-majority election districts were removed at a rate about 60 percent greater than everyone else.”

And yet where was the media coverage? Why did Obama speak about 138 voter purges by North Carolina’s Republican Board of Election and not 120,000 voter purges by that of Democratic New York? This major purge slipped under the radar, and to this day the media has not covered it or theorized why it occurred. While the purpose of the situation remains unclear, it is a flagrant example of partisan interference in who gets to vote; even in a Democratic state, universal suffrage is not implied and cannot be assumed.

Other examples of Democrats’ efforts at voter suppression are best evinced in the timing of elections. Forty-four out of 50 states hold some state or local elections off the federal cycle. These out-of-sync cycles are not a response to voter preference; according to FiveThirtyEight, the majority of voters prefer consolidated elections – especially Democrats who prefer them by a margin of 73 to 27 percent.

According to professor Sarah Anzia, of University of California, Berkeley, state legislatures across the nation considered more than 200 bills from 2001 to 2011, the vast majority sponsored by Republicans, aimed at consolidating elections. Only 25 passed; the rest failed due to Democratic opposition. The disparity between voters favoring consolidated election and the party opposing them points to the party’s serving its own interests in the way it conducts elections.

Why would Democrats seek to maintain off-cycle elections? They result in significantly decreased voter turnout: a side effect that goes against the Democrats’ philosophy of universal participation. However, when local and state elections are held during inconvenient times, average voters are unlikely to participate. Rather, voters with a vested interest – like union members and city workers – assemble in full force. As FiveThirtyEights explains, many Democrats argue that off-cycle elections are beneficial as they bring out “educated voter(s) …who really care about the issues and who are passionate.”

Sound familiar? Democrats supporting off-cycle elections and Republicans pushing for Voter ID laws are two sides of the same coin: they present small obstacles so that only informed voters with a vested interest – whose ideologies coincidentally match those of the party imposing the burden – exercise their franchise. Whether in North Carolina or New York, massive purges of minority voters are driven by both parties and go unanswered. While liberals preach universal access to the voting booth, they are no better than their conservative foes.

At Stanford, we live in a liberal bubble where the narrative of voter suppression appears to be applied only to Republicans. As educated, politically conscious students on a predominantly left leaning campus, we should be aware that there are two sides to political corruption. Beneath the differing party platforms, both parties are guilty of electioneering. In our system, any party machine – Republican, Democrat, or otherwise – will attempt to skew the vote in their favor, fairly or not. The amended Constitution promises universal suffrage; in violating it, America’s social contract has been breached by both  parties.

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