Racist Barriers to Voting Remain in the U.S. – But Action for Inclusive Elections are Needed Worldwide

Gail Welch may not be a household name, but the electoral official from Mississippi caused a social media backlash when she raised her concerns that ‘The blacks are having lots (of) events for voter registration.  People in Mississippi have to get involved, too.’

It was meant to be a private message, she responded, ‘I was just trying to strike a match under people and get them to vote — to get everybody to vote.’  Nonetheless, it gave the impression that electoral officials, who are required to be neutral in delivering democracy, a system in which all citizens are supposed to be equal, might be more concerned about some voters than others.  

The American electoral process has long been beset with underlying inequalities that has disadvantaged black and minority ethnic voters.  The right to vote was extended relatively early on to citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, gender and social class.  The Fourteenth Amendment (1868), Fifteenth Amendment (1870) and the Reconstruction Act (1867) prevented citizens being denied their privileges. But new informal barriers to voting were quickly erected in the nineteenth century, such as restricting the opening times for polling stations in majority Black areas, introducing poll taxes or requiring literacy tests.  They continued for decades ahead.

More recent barriers contribute towards significant turnout gaps at elections. Turnout in US presidential elections isn’t usually much more than half of the voter age population.  But Black voter turnout has traditionally been some way behind White – and there is usually a turnout gap of around 20 percentage points between Hispanic and White turnout.  Election results could look a lot different if everyone voted.  Writing in the 1960s one political scientist warned that ‘The whole balance of power in the political system could be overturned by a massive invasion of the political system’ should non-voters begin to participate.  This ‘unused political potential is sufficient to blow the United States off the face of the earth.’  The power of non-voters remains as important ahead of forthcoming elections in the United States and elsewhere.

Election inequalities

In a new book we reveal the global nature these inequalities and the solutions to them. The turnout gap is a global problem, not just an American one.  An analysis of turnout in 55 countries reveals turnout to be lower amongst women, younger voters, less educated citizens, and poorer voters.  Although it is not always identifiable in the macro analysis, the volume also draws attention to the lower turnout rates by ethnicity and those with disabilities.

There are many causes of these turnout gaps.  Inequalities within the electoral process to amplify them continue to be found in different forms, however.  One line of exclusion is through electoral law.  For example, many citizens remain legally disenfranchised on the basis of nationality, citizenship status or prior criminal record.  Four million American citizens are denied the right to vote due to laws that restrict voting based on a criminal record.  The US is clearly not alone here, however.  A study from 2016 reported that 29 out of 66 jurisdictions surveyed worldwide had voting restrictions on prisoners who are convicted and serving a prison sentence.  Restoring voting rights while providing encouragement and assistance to participate an upcoming election, a study within the book shows, encourages citizens’ faith and trust in government and their belief that they can understand and influence political affairs. 

Other legal instruments for restricting the vote include requiring citizens to present voter identification before granted their ballot paper. These are legislative requirements sound equitable in paper, are not in practice, when prior holding of voter identification is uneven across age, socio-economic and ethnic groups. Voting wars over voter ID is now being fought in many other countries.  Voter id requirements are in progress in the UK, for example.  The book shows 53.4 of poll workers turned away at least one voter in the pilots for not having the required identification. 

Inequality at the ballot box is also realised in the technical management of elections.  Research within the volume shows how voter experiences at polling stations were uneven across the 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2016 US elections.  Compared to white, Hispanic, and Asian voters, African American voters were most likely to report waiting more than 30 minutes or experiencing a problem with the voting machine or their voter registration.  The absence of wheelchair ramps at polling stations prevents some disabled citizens form casting their vote.

Inequality at the ballot box also comes from deliberate intimidation and acts of violence – which are often gendered in nature.  The experience of Uganda is that this is often targeted explicitly at women – with youth gangs being paid to intimidate eligible and entitled voters. This obviously violates the principals of equality set out in the introduction in the gravest way.  Cultural practices at polling stations can also be exclusionary – research within the book shows how ‘men shouting at women’ was sometimes a feature of behaviour inside polling stations at English local elections.

What is to be done?

We call for urgent action to address these inequalities.  We coin the concept of inclusive voting practices to refer to interventions which reduce inequality in the electoral process for citizens, including, but not limited to the voter turnout and registration gap.

Inclusive voting practices involve interventions by the state to level-up democracy.  We distinguish these practices from repressive practices, where rulers also directly intervene, but with the aim of restricting participation to gain political advantage.  Inclusive voting practices are also different from laissez-faire approaches, where there is no action to address any inequalities.  Instead, it is left to the individual to educate themselves about elections, find out how to register and vote.  While sometimes deemed more ‘acceptable’, they are often deeply undemocratic in nature because they leave inequalities unchecked.  Democracy is not like an economic market where the small state may (or may not) bring economic prosperity.  Democracy requires legal equality in theory – but also in practice.

What an inclusive voting practice will mean, will be specific to the underlying inequalities in each country.  Solutions which have been shown to work around the world include the enfranchisement of disenfranchised citizens, automatic voter registration, compulsory voting to require full participation, convenient voting practices that don’t require onerous identification requirements, better resourced electoral management bodies, vote by mail facilities, enhanced poll worker training, and mechanisms for identifying and preventing electoral violence and intimation, such as thorough election monitoring.

Unfortunately, these policies are all too often not adopted.  Those in power are often comfortable with the status quo and reforms might sound too risky.  Or there may be a lack of knowledge about the problem or the alternatives. 

Ironically, there might therefore be a case for the unequal treatment of voters in that resources are efforts are focussed to address deep underlying inequalities to level up democracy.  Not to make them worse.

Author biography

Toby James is a Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of East Anglia and is a PSA member. He tweets at @TobySJamesHolly Ann Garnett is an Assistant Professo at the Royal Military College of Canada. She tweets at @HollyAnnGarnett. Image credit: Karlis Dambrans/Flickr.

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