The New Debate Over Voting Rights: Suppression and Fraud in Modern America

The right to vote is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, and one that is held dear by most Americans. In recent years, however, allegations of voter fraud and voter suppression from Republicans and Democrats, respectively, have sparked debate on the current status of voting rights in the United States. Interestingly, voter fraud is broadly defined and occurs in a variety of forms, including both voter suppression and the kind of fraud Donald Trump and his campaign claim is occurring, such as double voting and voter impersonation. With the presidential election looming, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have spoken out about this issue, with, of course, completely different takes on the causes of the problem.

A sign outside a voting center in Texas, by Jay Phagan

Arguably with influence from the Bernie Sanders campaign, Hillary Clinton has placed an emphasis on repealing the 2010 US Supreme Court decision of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, widely referred to simply as ‘Citizens United.’ The conservative majority of justices in this case voted 5-4 to allow organisations to broadcast politically angled content during an election season. The Court upheld this as a provision of the First Amendment, maintaining that independent political spending cannot be interfered with by the government, except when corporations would be donating directly to candidates or political parties. This decision has been viewed by many on the left as an allowance of “billions of dollars…being funneled into our elections in a form of legalized bribery,” according to the Bernie Sanders campaign website. This aspect of the voting rights controversy calls into question the integrity of the voting system, in that the power of the public is being potentially devalued by the power of corporations and other wealthy organisations, which now have the ability to influence elections even further.

On the other side of the aisle of American politics, Donald Trump’s campaign has regularly alleged that the 2016 election is being ‘rigged’ by Hillary Clinton supporters. Mike Pence, the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, has stated that voter fraud is a significant problem all around the country for the upcoming election. The Trump campaign has gone so far as to encourage its supporters to register as an ‘election observer,’ or a volunteer who monitors certain areas for voter fraud. This has been interpreted by Democrats as a thinly-veiled effort to intimidate voters in minority-heavy areas, and President Barack Obama called the claims “ridiculous” and “a conspiracy theory.” Studies have found that voter fraud is indeed quite rare, with one investigation finding 31 cases of fraud out of 1 billion votes over the course of several years. Nevertheless, voter fraud and voter registration have remained contentious issues in the 2016 election season, especially since it is the first election since the 2013 Supreme Court decision to restrict the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 1965 by then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, is widely regarded as one of the most influential pieces of legislation of the civil rights movement. The act aimed to put an end to discriminatory practices, mostly in Southern states, that made it more difficult for African-Americans to exercise their right to vote, guaranteed by the 15th amendment to the Constitution. The 2013 Supreme Court case dealt with Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which held that a list of states including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia (among various other districts) had to seek federal clearance before changing voting procedures. The conservative majority of the Supreme Court again ruled that this portion of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Prominent African-American politicians, including President Obama and Democratic Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a leader during the civil rights movement, expressed disappointment with the Court’s decision on the grounds that it would allow the renewal of racial discrimination in Southern states especially. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her written dissent, said “The great man [Martin Luther King, Jr.] who led the march from Selma to Montgomery and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act foresaw progress, even in Alabama, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice,’ if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” In quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., Ginsburg implied that the ‘task’ of ending racial discrimination, particularly in the context of voter registration and procedures, had not yet been seen through to completion.

Indeed, she may have significant evidence for making this claim. In states which tend to lean Republican, lawmakers often limit early voting, which is when most working-class individuals are able to vote. Since Election Day is both a weekday and not a federal holiday, early voting access is essential for those who are unable to take time off from work. ‘Racial gerrymandering,’ or the tactic of redrawing voting districts to lessen the influence of the minority vote in the electoral college, only furthers the disproportionate impact of stricter voting laws on the working class and minorities. Leading up to the 2012 presidential election, one Pennsylvania lawmaker was recorded saying that new voter ID requirements in the state would lead to a victory for Governor Mitt Romney in the state of Pennsylvania. This is a striking example of the undeniable partisanship involved in the issue of voting rights.

The classic sticker given to voters in the US, by Dwight Burdette

On the other hand, Democrats who have attempted to increase voter registration may have been doing so in order to increase votes for their own party. A liberal organization called Patriot Majority USA had significantly increased voter registration among African-Americans in the state of Indiana. Soon after, Republican lawmakers in the state launched a probe through the Indiana State Police investigating voter fraud in the state, and putting a portion of voter registration on hold. Patriot Majority USA called this a “partisan effort to disenfranchise 45,000 new Hoosier voters, most of whom are African-American.” However, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is currently investigating the legitimacy of voter fraud claims in Missouri, Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma.

As American politics devolves into a sea of confusion, it is sometimes tricky to pick out the truth amongst all the floating allegations from both sides. The United States’ history of voter discrimination leading up to and during the civil rights period is thought by many, including Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts, to be long over, but some evidence points to the contrary. In order to maintain the integrity of American democracy, most people on both sides of the political aisle would agree that the voice of the American people in government must remain the strongest influence. The results of the 2016 presidential election, and subsequent Supreme Court nominations, will undoubtedly affect the future of voting rights in the United States.

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