Many countries in liberal democracies see the crucial importance of universal suffrage and the benefits of citizens being viewed as equal when casting their votes. This is predicated on the belief that voting should be made as simple as possible, with the absolute minimum of restrictions. America, in particular the southern states, seems conflicted over these basic democratic principles.
The Republican Party is leading the charge to suppress voter rights, allegedly to reduce voter fraud, which by all accounts and numerous studies, doesn’t exist in US elections: not surprisingly, President Trump has claimed there was “rampant” voter fraud in 2016.
A special US Department of Justice unit – set up over a decade ago to look at instances of federal election fraud – was able to prove that just 0.00000013 per cent of ballots cast were fraudulent. UFO sightings and getting struck by lightning are more common. Stealing votes in America is hard, but tragically so is casting ballots for millions of Americans.
Much to the embarrassment of the Republican Party, a major electoral ballot-rigging scandal in the 9th District of North Carolina hit the headlines last week. This seat has been undeclared since last year’s mid-term elections because of allegations of fraud. After intense investigations, a new election has been called, the first time this has happened in the state for 40 years. It now seems likely that the FBI will investigate the Republican candidate’s campaign team to see if there are any charges to be brought over the alleged rigging of absentee ballots.
Despite this, the Republicans in general seem beyond remorse, guilt or humility, continuing to press their fake claims of voter fraud, instead of pushing for an end to voter suppression, a great deal of which is racially motivated.
Governors and legislators in about half of the states of the Union are feverishly working on a variety of voter suppression schemes, designed to stop or make voting in America more difficult.
By European standards, voter turnout in the US is much lower. In mid-term elections outwith presidential years, turnout figures are usually in the mid-40 per cent range. In presidential years, the figure will be in the 60s. The US needs to raise its electoral game, not diminish its poor turnout figures.
This is the sad, shameless and scandalous side of US politics. Voter fraud doesn’t exist in any credible form, so what then are the real reasons behind voter suppression and who is it aimed at? Obtaining marginal political gain is plausible but unconvincing as the only reason behind the huge resources and political energy being invested in this undemocratic and – in view of the claims that this is the “land of the free, home of the brave” – very un-American activity.
The victim profile for voter suppression is alarming. It is aimed exclusively at minorities, African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics. It is also political, seeking to impact electors who vote for the Democrats. And it is aimed at the poor and the poorly educated, whose voices are muted in complaint and voting is the only way for them to improve their lives.
Finally, it plays well with the Trump doctrine of “white is best”; some people feel they have been given ‘permission’ to indulge in identity politics, exclusion and the exploitation of race in a deeply divided and increasingly hate-filled America. This is political and moral corruption. Most European countries would call this out. So why are Americans and Congressional Republicans allowing this to happen?
When Trump was elected in 2016 he refused to accept that Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote by nearly three million votes. He argued, that, between three and five million, illegal, fraudulent votes were cast for Clinton. This was, of course, nonsense. True to form, he set up a “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” to look into “vulnerabilities in voting systems” which was essentially a tool for enabling voter suppression.
Finding no evidence, Trump dissolved the Commission nine months later without producing a final report. In the aftermath of the North Carolina revelations, there has been a deafening silence from the Republican leadership in Congress and no tweets from the President; embarrassing news is best left alone.
Weapons in the armoury of voter suppression, include: more restrictive voter ID processes; making it harder for voters to register; cutting back on early and absentee voting; making it harder to restore voter rights after criminal convictions; transgender obstacles being put in place; ‘caging lists’ where political parties attempt to de-register their opponents; racially gerrymandering district (constituency) boundaries; closing down convenient polling stations or moving polling stations miles from where people live; and initiating purges of lists of voters who have voted infrequently. These measures are used consistently, extensively and systematically to stop people voting. This is disenfranchisement on a grand scale.
But there is an even deeper layer of concern that informs and fuels this moral, political and constitutional outrage.
Despite the emancipation of the slaves in 1865 by President Lincoln, the inhumanity of the Jim Crow-era in the early 20th century, the inspiring work of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there are those who want to keep the race issue to the fore. The idea of “separate but equal” lingers on.
The view that people of colour are in some way “lesser people” and don’t deserve the vote permeates the thinking of white supremacists who take comfort from and are emboldened by the remarks of President Trump. The prospect of white Americans being a minority in “their own country” by 2050 has encouraged racists to redouble their efforts.
America is a country of towering resources and a vast unrealised potential, but in so many ways it appears socially and culturally undeveloped – a bitterly divided country, where some are unwilling to show compassion, remorse or guilt towards people whose skin colour may be different to theirs, but who are still Americans. The wealth of the southern states was built on the backs of slaves.
The Republican Party has to get angry about racism, and stop the President fanning the flames of racial discrimination.
Thomas Munday Petersen was the first African American to vote in an election on 31 March 1870, under the provisions of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution. Enjoying his new status back then, did he ever think that 149 years later African Americans would still be fighting for suffrage?