In authoritarian states across the globe and throughout history, conservatives and their wealthy or aristocratic allies attempt to restrict the right of the people to participate in the running of the state. There is always a reason that sounds fair and righteous to people whose reason is easily manipulated.
As a white, “privileged”, South African, I encountered this phenomenon at an arms length. It did not impact my life to any great extent, since I was at school through most of the apartheid era, then forced into military service, and finally working long hours in an office. It took me many years to really realize just how insidious and barbaric the system was.
In coming to America, I expected a nation of true liberty, respect for human rights and a real universal franchise where voting rights are sacrosanct. It has taken a long time watching the system ostensibly from the outside to understand not just how flawed the system is, but how discriminatory and arbitrary.
The attack on voting rights involves an assault on many fronts, all of which have as their intent the removal of the universal franchise. It involves attacking the opponents’ voters and making it difficult or impossible to exercise the right to a free and fair electoral process.
The first attack is on the obvious target – people who are currently, or who have been incarcerated. It sounds very plausible that people that have broken the law should be stripped of their rights as citizens. There are a variety of reasons that people end up in a penitentiary, some petty, and some violent. There is a qualitative distinction to be drawn between habitual, violent criminality and a misdemeanor or legal infraction. In some states, a felons rights are either not restored at all, or take years to restore. Despite their criminality, they ought to be allowed to determine who will represent their interests at any level of government.
The next attack is to gerrymander districts to make them adhere to the voting group that will ensure your election. This was a common tactic in apartheid South Africa, and ensured the rise to power of the Nationalists and their continued grip on power. Conservatives in the United States have seized on this tactic and use it to great advantage to seize power in the South. It also ensured, as it does here, that a vote in one part of the country is worth more than in another. In South Africa, a vote in the Northern Cape was worth four votes in a major urban center like Johannesburg.
The tactic often used next is to deny any kind of vote to people of certain groups. This is most often used to deny representation to minority groups. In South Africa, the vote was denied to persons of color, Asians, blacks and colored people. In Germany in the 1930’s, it was people of Jewish heritage, Roma, Slavs and so on. In the United States, immigrants are kept waiting for residence and citizenship for years, and sometimes decades to deny them the vote. People who arrived as children are denied residence. The latest tactic is to try and deny the citizen children of undocumented migrants not born in the United States residence and citizenship.
To try and reduce the vote further, what amount to poll taxes are introduced. Insistence on identification documents are legislated, effectively denying the vote to people unable to procure documentation. This includes people that work long hours during the week and are unable to take time off to appear in person at government offices. People without transport, or who are unable to leave their domicile are also prejudiced by being forced to obtain identification.
To make it even more difficult, voting hours are shortened, which prejudices those that cannot take time off to vote for fear of losing jobs.
Voters rolls are purged of people that appear to be dead, or criminals, or those that change address. The incidence of mistaken identity is high and denies the vote to people that are eligible to vote. Often people only find out that they have been removed when they arrive to vote.
Dozens of other tactics have been tried, including employers not giving employees time off to vote, insisting on language or other tests to determine eligibility, and giving out false information about voting dates, or polling stations.
One of the most insidious tactics is the use of the pulpit to coerce a vote for or against a candidate. Religious institutions are supposed to be impartial, and their tax-exempt status depends on their neutrality, a statute that is often broken.
These tactics are almost always used by conservatives, who appear incapable of participating in an honest election. If they cannot win honestly, they will do so in a disreputable and fraudulent manner. It appears that, to them, democracy is anathema. For the sake of a vibrant democracy, we need to stop these tactics.
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