Fighting the "New" Disfranchisement with a New Voting Rights Movement

By Ellen Spears

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 p. 14

The raft of disfranchising mechanisms, old and new, that served to delegitimize the 2000 presidential election place the need for electoral reform at the top of the national agenda. More than at any time since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the workings of the system are exposed, revealing undemocratic practices that affect many voters and pervasive disfranchisement of voters of color. Calls for national unity and healing will have no meaning unless these persistent wrongs-including the overwhelming influence of money in politics-are righted.

The experience of disfranchisement by voters unaccustomed to it in Palm Beach County bared the innards of an electoral system that does not fairly count the votes. But much more needs repair. Partisan-initiated voter purges conducted during spring and summer 2000 that removed 173,000 voters from the roles had a disproportionate impact on African-American, Haitian-American and Latino voters. The Florida felon disfranchisement law, like laws in twelve other states, permanently withholds the vote from persons who have paid their social debt. These policies affected an estimated 400,000 voters of all races in Florida; similar policies deny the vote to an estimated 1.4 million African American voters nationwide. Perhaps most troubling is the black vote suppression in Duval County, with an African America population of 26 percent, where an estimated 10.2 percent of the voters' ballots were invalidated.

Three separate investigations into racial bias in the voting irregularities in Florida-by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Florida state government-need full public airing. But greater electoral democracy requires a range of reforms in every state.

Federally funded updating of election machinery in poor and urban areas to provide a full and fair count is only the beginning. Many elections are won or lost long before most voters are attuned or many candidates have paid their filing fee, during the decennial remap process. Insuring that the lines are fairly drawn will be a particular challenge in what is likely to be an especially partisan and bitter redistricting cycle. Full implementation of voter registration laws and an end to discriminatory purges are crucial.

A range of election day practices that work to disproportionately suppress the turnout of voters of color must be stopped. Voters turned away at the polls, polling places moved, intimidation, threats and harassment of African-American voters, failure to provide bilingual ballots, as required by law, or failure to provide language assistance with ballots-all these practices have no place in a genuine multiracial democracy. Absentee ballot irregularities require particular attention.

Clear principles for judicial review of elections must be set. The Supreme Court majority that decided this election by the slimmest of margins has evidenced hostility toward the Voting Rights Act during the past decade. If legitimacy of elections and the Court are to be retained, uniform standards must be applied.

Beyond each of these prescriptions lie even deeper structural or institutional reforms: further consideration of proportional voting and Electoral College reform rank high among them. The South has, once again, wielded disproportionate power in the national election. Though 53 percent of African-American voters (who vote 90 percent for Democrats) reside in the Southern states, the combined effect of winner-take-all elections and the Electoral College system acts to prevent those votes from counting. Writes ColorLines magazine editor Bob Wing, "the result was the same as if blacks and other people of color in the region had not voted at all."

The corrosive power of money in politics places the need for campaign finance reform at the top of this long list. We cannot decry low U.S. voter participation rates, yet fail to act to get money out of politics; we must press for structural reforms to policies that inhibit involvement or deny access. To do so, as Harvard law professor Lani Guinier points out, we need a new voting rights movement. If we hope for a genuine, multiracial democracy, we cannot make obsolete the solemn promise of the vote.

Ellen Spears is associate director of the Southern Regional Council. She can be reached by email at espears@southerncouncil.org.