Protecting Minority Voting Rights

A version of this article originally appeared in the Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice. 

The contentious and divisive 2016 election season and the uncertain political terrain ahead raise the important question of how we appropriately respond to the needs of minorities in our society and in our politics. While concerns about minorities are frequently expressed via identity politics – politicizing divisions among citizens based on social or ideological similarities – I would suggest that we, as Christians, should look at minorities as a way to identify “the least” and to work to protect their political rights as we pursue justice and flourishing for all in our political community.

As we consider minorities, we should remember that all of us are in the minority, some of the time. Recognizing this, the American founders explicitly protected those “minority” rights by providing procedural guarantees that keep the majority’s will from being oppressive. The founders saw justice as the ability to govern oneself, for citizens to have a voice and a stake in the outcome of decisions made by their government. While we may not always win, we are always able to regroup and try again to convince others of our opinions. This explicitly bars majority decisions that take away the basic political rights of those with whom they disagree. The 14th amendment further codifies the expectation that all citizens are afforded equal protection by the laws and the political system. 

Why revisit this elementary civics lesson? Because as Christian citizens in our political community, we should be concerned when any citizen is not being afforded the equal protection of the law. Our long history of institutionalized prejudice against many different minority groups demonstrates our need for vigilance in this area.

On one issue in particular we can all agree: we should all have a voice in governing ourselves. While it is completely legitimate to seek to convince others that we as a nation are better served by one set of policies than another, it is not legitimate to win this battle by denying voice to those people who may not agree. One area where we see this specific and profound injustice is in the growing challenge of voter suppression in many states across the country. Voters in fourteen states faced new restrictions in the 2016 election season, while six other states have passed significant restrictions since 2010. Reductions in polling locations have taken place in many states, purportedly for reasons of cost, but research on the geography of those reductions demonstrates that most of the closed polling locations were in low-income and racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods.

THE INJUSTICE OF VOTER SUPPRESSION

Voter suppression is the legal restriction of the voting franchise. This happens in a variety of ways: by the passage of laws requiring voter identification beyond that provided by registration, by voter registration list purges, and by the reduction in the number of voting locations or methods.

In-person voting at specific times and places can be problematic for those with jobs that do not offer paid time off or a flexible schedule; these are generally the jobs of people with lower incomes and education status. Voter identification laws are similarly problematic. People who do not have a stable address have difficulty providing the necessary proof of residency for driver’s licenses or other forms of ID. This can be true not only for homeless people and those who live in shelters, but also those on the margins who stay with family or friends for extended periods of time. The best research on the subject suggests that not only does voter suppression disproportionally impact the poor and African Americans and Hispanics, but that the laws, in their “proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” All of these efforts are taking place in states across the country, though they are more prevalent in states with higher numbers of racial and ethnic minorities.

Of the eleven states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, seven have passed laws to create new restrictions. More troubling is the passage of more restrictive voting laws in nine of the fifteen states originally covered by the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requiring federal supervision of voter registration and balloting because of a significant history of discriminatory practices against African Americans and Hispanics. Nine states remained under federal supervision when that part of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013. 

While many proponents of these restrictions argue that they are needed to reduce voter fraud, the actual incidence of in-person voter fraud is vanishingly small.  A compilation of various data sources suggests that incident rates are actually between .00004 and .0009 percent. There is little evidence that these laws are indeed protecting the integrity of the vote; but they are definitely reducing the opportunity for many citizens to vote.  This is especially the case for those whose socio-economic status makes it difficult to surmount the barriers of long travel to sparsely located voting locations, necessary identification for those whose addresses may change frequently, or who have, for other reasons, not voted regularly in the past.

As Christian citizens, we are to use the office of citizen and the rights and responsibilities it encompasses to do justice and to protect the weak from those who would exploit or persecute them.

These challenges highlight the structural political inequality at the heart of voter suppression efforts. If the systematic disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters were accidental, if it was purely the unintended consequence of a benign policy initiative, there would still be injustice to be remedied. But these attempts to limit access to the ballot are not accidental. They are intentional and geared toward reducing the power of racial and ethnic minorities in our system.  

In order to combat the unified voting by ethnic and racial minority groups for Democratic candidates in the 2008 and 2012 election, many Republican state legislatures passed these types of voting laws in order to suppress Democratic turnout overall and minority turnout in particular. (For more information, see “From Voter ID to Party ID,”  as well as “What Early Voting in North Carolina Actually Reveals” for an in-depth look at voter suppression in North Carolina.) These efforts received legislative and voter support because of the erroneous perception of widespread voter fraud and because demographic changes to the American population are widely viewed as problematic going forward for Republicans. Attempts to construct a group of voters sympathetic to a particular political party’s message are nothing new in American politics, but they are always unjust and they are a threat to our system overall and to the individual value of each vote. 

RESPONDING AS CHRISTIAN CITIZENS

How should we respond to this serious injustice? How can we make sure that our democracy appropriately protects minority voting rights? As Christian citizens, we are to use the office of citizen and the rights and responsibilities it encompasses to do justice and to protect the weak from those who would exploit or persecute them. One key responsibility of our citizenship is to hold government accountable to administer an electoral system that allows for adequate representation of all voices. Practically speaking, this means opposing and working to overturn laws that systematically disenfranchise racial and ethnic minorities and the poor and prevent them from access to the decision-makers in our government. 

While this may seem like an overwhelming responsibility, the good news is that almost all of the laws that govern voting and ballot access are state- and local- level laws. State and local governments are much more directly accessible to citizens and are frequently more responsive. Here are three specific and practical actions we can and should take:

1. REFUTE THE DESTRUCTIVE IDEA OF WIDESPREAD VOTER FRAUD. 

Many of the laws that have the effect of disenfranchising minorities and the poor came into being because of legitimate concerns about the integrity of our voting system. But we need to be concerned about the actual threats, such as the security of voting machines and counting systems, not in-person voter fraud. By educating ourselves about real threats to vote integrity, we can have helpful conversations with our families, churches, and communities about these issues. Good sources include the National Committee for Voting Integrity and FactCheck.org from the Annenberg Public Policy Center. This kind of dialogue is increasingly important as our political partisanship directs our media and news attention into smaller and smaller niches. This commitment to the truth and engaged conversations should be expanded to other forums like letters to the editor or other locally focused online forums covering community affairs.

2. KEEP TRACK OF STATE AND LOCAL VOTING LAWS AND PROCEDURES.

Because state and local laws vary to such a significant degree, it is worthwhile to join with others in your church or community to identify specific policies that may have the effect of suppressing the vote or the voices of racial and ethnic minorities in government. State Secretaries of State are usually the state-level officials tasked with administering the vote, while county auditors are usually the local-level officials with that role. For example, when the costs of maintaining in-person polling places are in question, it will be a county or city council whose members you should contact to express your opinion on the necessity of financing an adequate number of polling places so that lower income voters and those without transportation have adequate access to the ballot.

3. WORK PROACTIVELY TO EXPAND THE FRANCHISE AND ACCESS TO VOTING. 

This includes supporting voting reforms such as early voting, mail-in balloting, and broad absentee balloting powers. The Government Accountability Office has demonstrated that mail-in voting significantly increases turnout, particularly among minorities and the poor. While I have not focused on voter registration laws, these too can be an avenue for increasing voting access and voter turnout. Because registration laws are controlled by the states, this is another area where detailed local knowledge can be a great benefit in seeking to protect minority voices.

CONCLUSION

Other policies designed to uphold justice for minorities will have little chance of passage and implementation if voter equality is not guaranteed, unfortunately. In general, our system privileges those with resources to lobby and contribute to candidates, which can severely undermine the political rights of those with fewer resources to lobby for their political interests. While these inequalities can be theoretically overcome with other resources the poor and minorities have, such as the ability to organize and protest and vote, voter suppression removes these voices from the political conversation. The existing power differentials within politics then make it that much harder for minorities and the poor to reverse this trend. While protecting the voice of minorities and the poor in the making of our public policy does not guarantee equal protection, it is a very important place to start.

Being vigilant for the ways that the voting franchise can be denied to racial and ethnic minorities and ensuring their equal access to voting is just one of the ways we, as Christian citizens, can ensure that our democracy appropriately values and upholds justice for minorities and allows those voters a voice and representation in the political system. The patchwork and state level nature of the issue lends itself to practical work by groups of citizens in an arena where their voices are more easily heard. Pursuing justice in this matter means facilitating people’s ability to speak for themselves; countering policies that explicitly or implicitly suppress voting is a practical way to protect the poor and powerless.

-Kimberly H. Conger teaches Political Science at the University of Cincinnati and is past president of Christians in Political Science.