Peter Jones: Democratic poll? Don’t count on it
Overreaction to corrupt practices looks like disenfranchising some voters in a close US election, writes Peter Jones
How democratic is America? To judge by some of the thunderous comment from various preacher types as Hurricane Sandy, also dubbed “Frankenstorm”, swept in to America’s east coast, it is far too democratic. Various reverends saw no coincidence in the fact that it was headed for states prominent in heretical practices such as the legalisation of gay marriage. “God’s judgement on such abominations”, roared sundry preachermen.
I imagine, once the storm has passed, that there may well be Republican pastors claiming that this was God’s wrath telling Americans it is time to get President Obama out of the White House. God, I’m pretty sure, is not a voter next Tuesday, an oversight, I suspect, that Republican legislators will get round to fixing once, that is, they have finished fixing the lists of mortals who can actually vote.
The process of voting in the US has long been infamous for corrupt practices. Democrats in big cities such as Chicago have, historically at least, been particularly guilty.
Most appallingly, the alleged use of Frank Sinatra as an intermediary with mafia boss Sam Giancana by Joe Kennedy to ensure his son John F. Kennedy was elected is now so well-documented by third parties that it merits the conclusion that the Mob put him in the White House.
And after Kennedy was assassinated (perhaps by the Mob on the grounds he welched on the deal his father struck), his successor was Lyndon “Landslide” Johnson. This refers to his narrow 1948 win in taking a Senate seat in Texas. The story goes that the day after the election a Mexican boy was found sobbing for his dead father. When reminded his father had died a year ago, he bawled: “But he came back to vote for Lyndon Johnson and he didn’t come to see me.”
There is no shortage of contemporary shenanigans. In the Democrat stronghold of Philadelphia, practices involving the payment of money to street “activists” which are believed to be payments to voters once, that is, they have voted, are said to be rife.
From such stories has sprung a Republican campaign to clean up voting. Quite right, you might say, given this sort of stuff. But this campaign is ostensibly aimed at something claimed to be a big problem, the type of voter impersonation that so upset the Mexican boy in Texas.
To stamp this out, a good many states have passed laws requiring voters to produce government identity documents carrying a picture, such as a passport or a driving licence, rather than just the normal pictureless voter registration card when presenting themselves at a polling station.
Again, quite right you might say. But the odd thing is that, in modern times at least, voter impersonation seems to be incredibly rare. A Department of Justice collation of election analyses found that, among 300 million people voting between 2002 and 2007, there were only 86 cases of impersonation, a fraud rate of 0.0000003 per cent.
Nevertheless, according to the Brennan Centre for Justice, a non-partisan body, 19 of 50 US states have recently passed laws imposing restrictions on voting, seven of them demanding photo IDs.
Well, you might think this is reasonable as carrying some sort of photo ID is a pretty regular requirement these days. Not, however, if you look at the type of people who are more likely than not to carry the particular documents.
Of 308 million Americans, only 30 per cent have a passport. And of over-18s, about 10 per cent are estimated not to have a driving licence.
If you thought that the people who do not have these forms of ID are concentrated amongst the poor and disadvantaged, who are much more likely to vote Democrat, you would be absolutely right. And right again if you thought that these laws have been passed by Republican state legislatures which, rather than the federal government, control voter eligibility laws.
That’s not all that has been going on. A lot of states have permitted early voting for those who might be moving house, travelling for work purposes, or going on holiday. Democrats are believed to be rather better at getting their folk organised for this than Republicans.
Voter registration is another activity where curbs have been introduced. In order to vote in US elections, people have to actively register themselves. Poorer people are less likely to do so, so Democrat campaigns targeting these people are much more intensive than Republican efforts.
All in all, it amounts to quite a significant effort, tantamount to restricting people’s rights to vote. A year ago, the Brennan Centre estimated that up to five million Americans might be disenfranchised.
Fortunately for democracy, the courts have, by and large, agreed that it is undemocratic and a lot of the restrictions have been struck down. Now, the Brennan Centre thinks, the number who have been effectively deprived of a vote is a lot less.
But some of the most important swing states, such as Florida, have managed to sustain many of the new restrictions. Voter registration has been made more onerous and the Brennan Centre reports a scholarly study finding that 18-21 year-olds are much less likely to have been registered to vote than at previous elections.
The period for early voting has also been curbed in the sunshine state. The Brennan Centre says: “Nearly one million voters in 2008 cast their votes in the days that have been eliminated. This will mean difficulties and burdens for all Florida voters, but it is black voters who will bear the brunt of constricted access to the polls. In 2008, black voters used the now eliminated first week of early voting at more than twice the rate of white voters, and they relied on the final Sunday at more than three times the rate of white voters.”
In the 2000 presidential election, when George W Bush won office for the first time, defeating Al Gore, the key result was Florida. Mr Bush was initially declared the winner by a mere 1,784 votes, a margin which decreased to 327 after a machine recount.
This was the infamous “hanging chad” recount, which resulted in much court battling all the way to the Supreme Court. Mr Bush remained the winner, but a lot of Democrats still reckon the election was stolen from them. Could history be about to repeat itself, with democracy the loser?
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Friday 24 May 2013
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