Young people across this nation are standing up for many different causes with sizeable rallies and protests that are truly commendable. Hundreds of students gathering in New York City’s Central Park or around Philadelphia’s City Hall for issues like climate change and gun reform shows that they, in the words of John F. Kennedy, are “unwilling to postpone” showing their concerns about their future.
Both students and activists around the country have woken up to the reality that the United States is behind most other developed countries when it comes to providing basic necessities like healthcare, clean water and public education. The complication is that nothing can change unless every citizen can have an equal say in who represents them.
No one is undermining their efforts or concerns, but as a society, we live under a system that does not promote change and does not listen to those who are most vulnerable. In order for us to begin solving climate change or the racial divide in this country, we need to amend our voting laws so that the concerns of the underserved are heard instead of corporate interests. Without amending our voting laws first, we are keeping in place a system that has us debating the facts of our issues instead of one that disarms the stagnation that fills our legislative chambers.
It has been 54 years since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into effect, and yet this nation has failed on truly making the constitutional right of voting accessible to all Americans. The act primarily served to further enforce the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The act states, “To assure that the right of citizens of the United States to vote is not denied or abridged on account of race or color, no citizen shall be denied the right to vote in any Federal, State, or local election because of his failure to comply with any test or device in any State…”
Now, it is true that there are no laws that explicitly mention that any particular race will be limited in how they can participate in our democracy, but there have been multiple ways in which this country has indirectly targeted minorities by attempting to suppress their voice on Election Day.
Let us start with the fact that Election Day is not even a national holiday. This is an impediment to minorities because proportionally, more minorities are members of the American working or lower class in comparison to white people. This means that, because of the economic class that a sizeable fraction of minorities are in, they have jobs and positions that offer a less flexible schedule to go out and vote. If Election Day were made a national holiday, more people would be able to cast a ballot. It is true that individuals can vote early for elections, but even that comes with its own bureaucracies, starting with how people are allowed to vote in the first place.
There is a stipulation that multiple states have put in place to suppress the minority vote: the requirement of voter ID just to cast a ballot. Voter ID laws are, at the time of writing, currently in effect in 35 states. Pennsylvania used to be among the ranks until 2014, when Justice Bernard L. McGinley of the Commonwealth Court struck it down, saying that voter ID laws do not further the goal of ensuring free and fair elections.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 11 percent of Americans (21 million people) lack photo identification. ACLU also believe that these laws are discriminatory because 25 percent of African-Americans lack government-issued ID, compared to only eight percent among white Americans.
This goes back to attacking racial minorities through the lower socioeconomic status most are in because obtaining a government-issued ID is not cheap. For a passport, you can go to travel.state.gov and see that, after the application and execution fees, it comes out to a combined $145. According to PennDot (which provides state services to drivers and vehicles), a Pennsylvania state ID can come out to $31.50. This is simply not money that people living paycheck to paycheck have on hand.
16 states, in addition to D.C., have automatic voter registration, which allows people to be automatically registered to vote through certain services unless they choose not to. This makes the system an opt-out one, because it is triggered through interactions with public services. This system should be a national standard.
The majority of the states with the most strict voter ID laws are southern states with a more conservative leadership, and this is not beneficial to Democrats as minorities tend to be a more loyal voting block for their party. According to exit polls compiled by Edison Research, on the night of the 2018 midterm election, 90 percent of African Americans voted for a Democratic candidate, while a lesser 69 percent of Hispanics did the same. Many hypothesize that the percentage of Hispanics voting blue would be higher if it were not for the fact that many Hispanics living in this country are undocumented and therefore cannot vote. Pew Research found that there are 4.9 million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States. If they were legalized, would anyone assume that a noticeable fraction of them would vote Republican after the rhetoric that the current president has been using against them for nearly four years now? If we legalized the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, we would be giving a voice to people who have been living in the shadows of democracy for so many years.
The country was shown how the right to vote can be easily taken away with Georgia’s gubernatorial election in 2018. The Democratic candidate, Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams, lost narrowly to Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was the Republican candidate. Being the Secretary of State, Kemp presided over voting in the state of Georgia. He abused this power because, according to the Associated Press, Kemp’s office placed over 53,000 voter registrations on hold, and 70 percent of the people on the list were black. This is significant because, according to a PBS NewsHour article titled “Black voters will define what ‘electable’ means for 2020 Democrats,” “African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population but 24 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.”
Kemp also barred an additional 107,000 people from voting because they did not vote in the last election. Some states make people register again if they were absent from voting in several elections but not one. Keep in mind that 160,000 people could not cast a ballot on Nov. 6, 2018, and Abrams only lost by 55,000 votes. This caused indignation across the country and led Abrams to launch a voting rights campaign, but the damage had unfortunately already been done. No one’s right to vote should be taken away, no matter how many elections they have not participated in.
The solutions for this bureaucratic and discriminatory voting system seem painfully obvious, but our elected officials do not make it seem that way. These measures would save money and promote democracy. Action on our most important issues, whether it is climate or gun reform, should not end with protest but rather by having all those concerned voice their priorities in the ballot box. We cannot keep letting the fate of the voiceless be determined by those who are disconnected from modern day-to-day struggles. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.” So let this generation be the first in American history to have those words be true.