US: Fixing democracy at home

The abundant evidence of voter suppression belies the oft-heard claim that the US is the world’s model democracy.

Vote Here sign
Many US elections are held on Tuesday, a weekday and inconvenient time for many citizens to reach the polls [EPA]

Amherst, MA – Americans are often told that voting is a sacred right and the foundation of American democracy. Politicians and the news media frequently boast that the United States is the world’s most democratic nation. The government provides financial support, technical assistance, and political resources to promoting global democracy. US politicians and the news media are quick to publicise inadequacies in the way that other countries conduct elections, as in their recent criticism of election irregularities in Russia and Myanmar.

In accordance with this principle, US efforts at democracy promotion should begin at home. The pro-democracy movement might begin by identifying fundamental flaws in the way that the US practices one person, one vote, and by questioning whether US elections actually function as advertised to promote a level playing field.

One of the key ways in which those with great wealth and power in the US preserve the status quo is to deter less privileged citizens from voting. The most notorious and vicious historical instance of this was the Jim Crow laws preventing African Americans from voting after the abolition of slavery and the passage of the 15th Amendment following the Civil War. Among the means used were levying a poll tax (a fee) in order to vote. Another required those seeking to register to pass a literacy test, one that was administered by local election officials to achieve the desired result.

Although racial discrimination in elections was officially outlawed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, many long-standing measures ostensibly enacted to ensure honest elections are in fact designed to achieve the goal of reducing turnout by youth, racial minorities, and low-income groups.

This article deals with the voter suppression movement – the term used to describe techniques to restrict voting. There are even more consequential ways that elections fail to reflect the principle of one person, one vote, including gerrymandering – drawing election district boundaries to favour incumbents, enormous expenditures by the super-rich on election campaigns and lobbying, and vote rigging achieved by tampering with electronic voting and vote counting machines. Some other examples (although not all inclusive):

– Registration requirements. In order to be eligible to vote in the US, one must register to be placed on the voting rolls. In most states, the registration process is complex and cumbersome. Citizens must register before the election and at times and places that are not well known or publicised. By contrast, in many countries, citizens are automatically registered when they reach voting age, or can register throughout the year at their local town hall.

– Eligibility. Several measures further trim the electorate. For example, one must have lived in a community a sufficient length of time to register to vote. The residency requirement especially affects college students. Another group barred from registering is the former prison population. While prisoners are ineligible to vote in most countries, many US states permanently disqualify felons who have fully served their prison sentences. (Recall, too, that the US has among the world’s highest rate of incarceration and that most of the prison population is poor and people of colour.)

– The act of voting. The difficulties of exercising the franchise do not end with registration. In most countries, voting occurs on Sunday, a day of leisure. Elections in the United States are typically held on Tuesday – a weekday and therefore an inconvenient time for many citizens to reach the polls. Nor is there much provision for early or absentee voting.

The barriers to exercising the franchise helps explain why voting turnout in the United States is among the lowest of long-established democracies. However lamentable this situation, it is hardly new although the situation has worsened in the recent years.

Conservative backlash

Following the election of George W Bush in 2000, and especially after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, a conservative backlash has significantly reversed liberalising reforms that started in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and continued afterwards. The voter suppression campaign is part of a broader movement, spearheaded by the ultra-conservative Tea Party and billionaire backers like the Koch brothers, to “reclaim” the country from an African-American president and a supposedly liberal Democratic Party. The movement gained particular urgency because Obama’s campaign promoted an unprecedented wave of mobilisation by youth and marginalised citizens that substantially increased the size of the electorate.

The campaign for voter suppression reforms gained added momentum when the Tea Party-fuelled Republicans Party gained control of 28 of 50 US state legislatures in the 2010 elections. The changes instituted since then have particular significance for future elections because, in the US federal system, state governments determine most voting eligibility requirements.

Since 2010, over three fourths of all state legislatures, mostly Republican-controlled, have considered laws to narrow the franchise. In the past year alone, sixteen states have adopted 21 such restrictions. In partisan terms, voter suppression efforts are targeted at damaging the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects. The campaign promises to have a substantial impact on the 2012 elections at all levels.

The voter suppression campaign casts a large shadow over the democratic pretentions of the United States. Excluding millions of Americans from voting would be disturbing under any circumstances. It is especially troubling when most of the excluded are Hispanic, black, young, and poor citizens. (Older citizens – a core Republican group – might be considered collateral damage of this campaign, although, again, there is a class and racial bias in which elderly citizens are deterred.)  

Voter suppression laws are usually promoted and drafted by conservative groups. A key player, whose draft legislation has been used as a model in many states, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, UPS, AT&T, Coca-Cola. As New York Times commentator Paul Krugman describes it, “ALEC has played a key role in promoting bills that make it hard for the poor and ethnic minorities to vote.”

How it works

The goal of voter suppression efforts is to reduce the number of eligible voters. Since 2009, sixteen Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed laws ending same-day voter registration or limiting voter registration drives, for example, by requiring that organisations submit lists of newly registered voters soon after registering them. Large fines and other penalties are imposed for violating these regulations. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters recently abandoned voter registration efforts in Florida, a large swing state with many unregistered voters, after a recently passed law stiffened procedures for registering voters.

The real motivation for the attempt to restrict the electorate is partisan and ideological: The fewer the number of youth, blacks, Hispanics, and low income citizens who vote, the greater the Republican Party’s electoral prospects.

The voter suppression movement has also sought to limit early and absentee voting. It has sought to overturn reforms authorising former felons to regain voting rights after completing their sentence. In Florida, for example, the state legislature restored the exclusion of the formerly incarcerated. One half million were affected by the measure, half of whom are black.

Another way that citizens can be prevented from voting is to require them to produce documentation that is difficult to obtain, such as a birth certificate, as proof of citizenship. Many citizens were never issued birth certificates or no longer possess one. Obtaining a birth certificate from local officials is time-consuming, cumbersome, and costly. Prior to 2011, only two states required citizens to provide birth certificates before registering. Since then, 13 additional states have added this requirement or are considering doing so.

But the most important measure in the arsenal of the voter suppression movement involves requiring citizens to produce a government-issued identification card, particularly a driver’s license, in order to vote. Nine states have recently passed legislation requiring government-issued photo IDs to vote; more than 20 other states are considering doing so.

Why should requiring a government-issued ID reflect a generational, class, and racial bias? Consider the most common example – a driver’s license. Most of the 21 million adult Americans without a driver’s license are young, poor, and/or members of minority groups. Eighteen per cent of youth and one quarter of all African Americans lack a driver’s license. In Texas, for example, half of those excluded by the requirement are Hispanic. Of course, obtaining a driver’s license is difficult, costly, and time-consuming, especially if the sole purpose is to qualify to vote.

The stated aim of the voter suppression campaign–to prevent electoral fraud – appears to be a case of the mouse that roared, for the best evidence suggests that voting fraud is practically non-existent. During George W Bush’s presidency, the Department of Justice conducted an intensive five-year investigation of voter fraud. The result? The government did not prosecute a single case of voter impersonation. During this period, a grand total of 86 people (among the 300 million votes cast in national elections during these years) were convicted for voter fraud. Most of those convicted were ex-felons and legally documented immigrants who did not realize that they were ineligible to vote.

The real motivation for the attempt to restrict the electorate is partisan and ideological: The fewer the number of youth, blacks, Hispanics, and low income citizens who vote, the greater the Republican Party’s electoral prospects.


There has been some pushback against the vote suppression drive. Benjamin Jealous, head of the NAACP, a large civil rights organisation, challenged it in testimony last month to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The US Department of Justice has recently blocked or challenged voter ID laws in Texas, Florida, and South Carolina on the grounds that they violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act injunction against racially exclusionary measures. State courts in Wisconsin and Missouri have disqualified voter suppression laws. However, the magnitude of the opposition to voter suppression is puny compared to the wave of recently adopted restrictions and those currently being considered.

The abundant evidence of voter suppression, along with compelling evidence of other measures that prevent fair and honest elections, belies the oft-heard claim that the US is the world’s model democracy. Moreover, procedural irregularities have fundamentally important social and material consequences, notably, that income and wealth in the US are more concentrated and unequal than in virtually any other developed nation.

Mark Kesselman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Columbia University and Editor of the International Political Science Review. He has published books and articles on West European and American politics and political economy.