It's election time, so we'll be hearing plenty of pious tributes to the wonders of the U.S. political system. From members of both parties, as well as the media that cover them, it's a constant refrain that America is the "world's greatest democracy"–where citizens from every corner of society determine how their country is governed with their votes.
Only when you examine these claims, you find a completely different picture. The system is supposedly based on "one person, one vote"–only millions and millions of people are excluded from voting at all, while a tiny minority of people who run businesses and political institutions have considerably more influence over Washington politics than one vote gives them.
The myth of "one person, one vote" in the U.S. has been thrown into particularly sharp relief during Election 2012 by legislation, pushed in various states by Republicans, that seeks to limit who will cast a ballot. These so-called "voter ID" laws are justified as a measure to stop vote fraud–but in reality, they are explicitly aimed at disenfranchising likely supporters of Democratic candidates.
And after Barack Obama's lead in opinion polls slipped following the first presidential debate, the push for "voter ID" laws suddenly seemed like it had the potential to tip the presidential election.
In October, federal courts blocked enforcement of voter ID laws in Pennsylvania andSouth Carolina, at least for the 2012 election. Weeks earlier, a federal court blocked a similar law in Texas, with judges ruling that the legislation "imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas," according to the Houston Chronicle.
Still, these are only a few of the voter ID laws now in place. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nearly 1,000 voter ID proposals have been introduced since 2001, and a dozen states passed or strengthened such legislation in the last two years.
Voter ID laws fall into multiple categories. "Strict photo ID" laws–which will apply in four states for the 2012 election and are pending, due to legal challenges, in five others–require people to show a photo ID in order to cast a ballot. In six other states, and one more pending a legal challenge, a photo ID is required, but voters without one may cast a provisional ballot that will be counted if it meets various other requirements. Three more states require some form of ID, but not necessarily a photo ID, in order to vote. In 13 others, voters are asked for identification, but it isn't required in order to cast a ballot.
In all but one of the states that tightened their ID restrictions in the past two years, the proposals were introduced by Republicans. Over half of the bills were sponsored by lawmakers affiliated with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), according to an analysis by News21.
ALEC, which created model voter ID legislation in 2009, is the same conservative organization behind the "Stand Your Ground" and "Castle Doctrine" laws that have been used to claim self-defense in the shootings of unarmed Black people like Trayvon Martin in Florida and Bo Morrison in Wisconsin.
The voter ID legislation has a clear aim: Depress the votes of people of color and other groups–young, poor, and working class voters–who are more likely to support Democrats.
Sponsors of voter ID legislation claim the proposals are intended to prevent vote fraud. But actual cases of vote fraud are so rare that this explanation rings hollow. Studies of 2004 elections in Ohio and Washington state found that vote fraud occurred in 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent of cases, respectively. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, "National Weather Service data shows that Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often."
Ironically, it is the Republicans who face the most high-profile allegations of vote fraud in this election. The Republican National Committee recently had to cut ties with Strategic Allied Consultants, whose founder was accused of "dumping registration forms filled out by Democrats," according to a local Fox News report. The allegations are based on video in which an employee admits on tape that she was seeking to register only Romney voters. The RNC had paid the company $3.1 million.
The reason for Republican enthusiasm for voter ID laws becomes clearer when you see who is disenfranchised by such laws and other attempts to discourage voting. Voter ID laws, like poll taxes and literacy tests in the Jim Crow South, disproportionately affect people of color.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that "25 percent of African-American voting-age citizens have no current government-issued photo ID, compared to 8 percent of white voting-age citizens." Those earning less than $35,000 a year are twice as likely to lack a photo ID–the same percentage applies to people aged 18 to 24.
Some Republicans don't even hide their intentions. As Ari Berman reported in theNation, the chair of the GOP in Franklin County said he opposed expanding hours for early voting because "we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban–read African American–voter-turnout machine."
Over the summer, former Florida Republican Party Chair Jim Greer said GOP officials in his state had talked about suppressing the Black vote, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
For the racists of the Republican Party, voter ID laws are a win-win. They will place new obstacles in the way of people who are unlikely to vote Republican. And by raising the specter of vote fraud, the laws provide another means to rile up and mobilize the GOP base to come out on Election Day.
While the rulings in South Carolina and Pennsylvania will prevent implementation of those voter ID laws before the 2012 elections, they haven't stopped them for good or even prevented them from having an impact on the election.
For example, according to the Columbia Free Times, the federal court decision ruled that the South Carolina law didn't discriminate against minorities. It postponed enforcement because "there wouldn't be enough time to practically implement any changes here before the November 6 elections," according to the Free Times.
Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Judge Robert Simpson ordered a temporary injunction to prevent enforcement of the voter ID law in 2012–but this could be reversed and the law put in place for the next election. In addition, Simpson's ruling doesn't prevent election officials from asking for ID–only that they can't prevent people from voting if they don't have it. In other words, election officials could still find ways to discourage those without ID from voting.
The U.S. Supreme Court has only ruled once on voter ID laws–in 2008, the justices upheld a strict photo ID law in Indiana. This does not bode well for those seeking to overturn the South Carolina law through the courts alone.
The recent rulings against voter ID laws are at least in part the result of efforts of groups like the NAACP and ACLU to mobilize protests against the laws. But it will take a longer and more determined struggle–one that looks beyond the 2012 election–to turn the tide.
Such a struggle, in order to win a real victory over those who would deny the vote to people of color, will have to go beyond voter ID laws to take on the policy of felony disenfranchisement. As Elizabeth Schulte wrote in Socialistworker.org: "Some 5.3 million Americans with felony convictions–and in several states, with misdemeanor convictions–are barred from voting…[m]ore than 1.4 million of the disenfranchised are African American."
Winning that kind of struggle will require challenging politicians of both parties who, in their eagerness to appear "tough on crime," have been willing to strip voting rights from those caught in the web of the New Jim Crow.
Expanding the right to vote in the U.S. has been a struggle since the founding of the country, when only white male property owners had the franchise. Some of the most important struggles in American history–the women's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South, for example–revolved around this very question.
What the current situation tells us is that this struggle is far from over. Even if voting ID laws are turned back and felony disenfranchisement abolished, about 20 million immigrants–documented and undocumented–are denied a vote in the country where they live, work and raise their families.
However, making "one person, one vote" a reality in the U.S. will be just one change among many needed to achieve real democracy in America.
Under the two-party system that prevails in the "world's greatest democracy," voters–even if they can cast a ballot unhindered–are effectively restricted in who they can vote for. Their vote is generally limited to candidates of the Democratic or Republican Parties, both of which are heavily funded by the 1 percent and serve their interests.
As a result, voters often encounter elections where neither main candidate represents overwhelmingly popular positions, such as ending the war in Afghanistan or curbing the power of the health care industry. Voters never had a chance to cast a ballot on whether the Bush tax cuts for the rich should expire. Nor does the electorate have any way of affecting what happens in workplaces or the broader economy.
Likewise, there isn't any effective way to use the ballot box to hold politicians accountable for the promises they do make. For example, union members who want to punish Barack Obama for breaking his promise to campaign for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act can hardly do so by voting for Romney, who would only do more to destroy workers' living standards.
Of course, voters are technically free to cast their ballots for a third-party candidate, but election laws make it very difficult for third parties to even run candidates for office. Those who do qualify for the ballot are certain to be ignored as an irrelevance by the mainstream media.
The collusion between the media and the major parties to exclude dissenting voices from the election campaign was illustrated this month with the leaking of an agreement between the two parties to ensure the presidential debates went as planned, with no surprises or difficult questions. When Green Party candidates Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala tried to enter the second debate at Hofstra University, they were arrested and handcuffed to chairs for eight hours.
When it comes to undemocratic institutions, the clearest example of all is the Electoral College system that actually selects the president, rather than a democratic vote. The Electoral College was specifically designed by the "Founding Fathers" who wrote the Constitution to be a safeguard against voters electing a president opposed by the elite.
Actually, the story of the formation of the U.S. political system shows that the Founding Fathers–who were mainly Southern slave owners or Northern merchants–were deeply suspicious of democracy, and they constructed the Constitution to limit its scope.
Their other chief concern in writing the Constitution was to safeguard the right to "property"–including owning men and women as slaves. Thus, James Madison, known at the time as the "Father of the Constitution," worried in the Federalist Papers that without strict protections for the privileges of property owners, "the most numerous party" would be able to "sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens."
Some of the "Founding Fathers" went even further. For example, Alexander Hamilton proposed that both senators and the president be elected, but serve for life, like Supreme Court justices.
The Constitutional Convention was animated by the rebellions in Massachusetts and other places, [which] caused the Founding Fathers to decide to get together in Philadelphia and draw up a document that would create a national government strong enough to deal with rebellions like this. And you have General Knox writing to [George Washington] before the Constitutional Convention, saying, "These soldiers of the revolution come back, and they think because they fought in the revolution, they deserve an equal share of the wealth of this country."
A genuine democracy must be able to achieve justice and equality for the oppressed and the exploited. But extending democracy to every part of our society where injustice, inequality and exploitation are found will require a determined struggle.
This article was originally published on SocialistWorker.org.