Voting in America: When is a Democracy not a Democracy?

Why new voting rules are pitting the Republican Party against community organisations across the US in what many are calling the new civil rights struggle.

Democracy. That buzzword we hear over and over again coming from powerful quarters in the US to help explain interventions across the globe, from Iraq to Central America.

But while many in the world are familiar with the buzzword, few may realise that a fight over democracy is being waged on American soil as we speak, and it comes in the form of challenging brand new voting laws.

Here’s a little background: In 2010 the Republican Party swept to power at the state level across the US. Today they control the senate and the House of Representatives in 25 states, and have a significant presence in a number of other state level legislatures. They’ve been using that newly acquired power to pass laws that clamp down on what they say is rampant voter fraud. To date, at least 30 new laws and bills have been introduced to change the rules of the voting game, like for example requiring voters to have a government-issued photo ID to cast their ballot.

Since embarking on this story, I have had a number of people ask me “what’s the big deal with wanting people to present a photo ID when they vote?”

On the surface, nothing.

Until you think about the fact that only 30 per cent of Americans actually have a passport. Compare that to 60 per cent in Canada and 75 per cent in the UK, and a certain picture begins to emerge. Now break that down even further, and you will see that 22 per cent (almost a quarter) of African Americans don’t have any kind of photo ID. When you look at it like that, then it becomes clear that the picture is much more complicated than originally meets the eye, and that the burden of complying with these new rules will be heavier on some communities than on others.

Combating voter fraud is not limited to voters themselves. In Florida for instance, civil society groups that have historically helped educate and sign up voters are now being forced to operate under tighter rules. In the US, unlike some other Western democracies, you are not automatically registered to vote if you are eligible, and you won’t get a notice in the mail telling you where to show up to cast your ballot. The onus is upon you to sign yourself up. Civil society organisations in Florida now have 48 hours instead of 10 days to sign up a new voter, double check all the details on their registration form, and submit that form to the state. Making a mistake on a submitted form is now a felony under Florida’s new rules, punishable with jail time and fines.

While traveling for the story, it became clear to me how much certain communities depend on the help of civil rights groups to do just that. Carolyn Thompson is a voter protection advocate with the Advancement Project, a civil rights organisation in Miami. She’s been working on voter education with the Caribbean community there for decades. “New immigrants who have gotten their citizenship but are not civically educated and engaged have no one to register them. We don’t have the capacity to reach deep into poor neighbourhoods to find voters who are not registered anymore,” Thompson told me when we met in a Haitian community centre.

But Kurt Browning, a Republican who ran Florida’s elections for over 20 years and is Florida’s former secretary of state, disagrees with Thompson. He told me the people to blame for any issues are civil society groups themselves. “We had an instance or two in Florida, where we’ve had potential voters not able to cast a ballot because the person they had entrusted their form to did not turn the form in. Now, I think that’s a travesty, they didn’t even get to vote.”

No one knows exactly how these laws will affect the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, but what we already know, thanks to an extensive study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute at NYU school of law is this: of the 12 likely battleground swing states, 5 have already passed new voting laws. Of the 270 electoral votes colleges a candidate needs to secure his or her victory, 171 – or 63 per cent – are affected by the new voting laws.

This is significant because the US system is ‘winner takes all’. That means that to win a state you need 50 + 1 per cent. In swing states where winning is considered critical to securing the White House, that + 1 becomes crucial. Therefore if the election turns out to be a close one, even the slightest impact of these new voting laws could sway the final result.

If you are not male, white, and a property owner, then chances are your right to vote only came as a result of a tough and long struggle against forces that have actively engaged in suppressing voting rights at one point or another throughout American history. Rutgers University professor Lorraine Minnite has done some of the most extensive research into the history of voting in the US. She told me: “We should not forget that both parties have engaged in this kind of behavior. It was the Democratic Party in the South that committed the worst violence in terms of trying to suppress the African American vote.”

And that’s why so many communities in the US are taking these Republican-driven changes so personally.

That’s also why Section 5 exists. It’s the one part of the US Voting Rights Act which specifically says that states and districts with a history of discriminating against minorities must clear any changes to their voting rules at the federal level, via the federal court and the Department of Justice (DOJ). These two have already struck down voting laws in South Carolina and Texas.

Texas refuses to go down without a fight. The state is now challenging the Voting Rights Act itself, arguing that Section 5 amounts to an unconstitutional federal intervention in state affairs. In the case of Texas, the DOJ concluded that the state’s requirement for photo ID disproportionately burdened the Hispanic population, despite the fact that Texas “did not include evidence of significant in-person voter impersonation”.

Which brings me to my final point. Throughout all of this, no one has been able to show that voter fraud and voter impersonation – the raison d’etre cited for of all these changes – is indeed a structural and comprehensive problem that plagues US democracy. “I looked everywhere where I thought there would be evidence. So it was a process of trying to find the footprint of a ghost,” was professor Minnite’s assessment of the prevalence of voter fraud.

The real question when thinking about all of these new voting rules then, is that old American adage: if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

We at Fault Lines set out on a journey across Florida and Tennessee to answer that very question. Watch our piece, “Disenfranchised in America”, online.

You can also catch it on Al Jazeera English at the following times (all GMT) : Tuesday, April 3: 22:30, Wednesday, April 4: 09:30 Thursday, April 5: 03:30 Friday, April 6: 16:30 Saturday, April 7: 22:30 Sunday, April 8: 0930 Monday, April 9: 03:30 Tuesday, April 10: 16:30.