Panelists in a Heartland Community College discussion on voter suppression said just because governments no longer explicitly bar African Americans, women or the poor from voting, it doesn’t mean there aren’t active efforts to control who shows up at the polls.
William Rau, emeritus professor of sociology at Illinois State University, said to define voter suppression, it’s helpful to imagine the opposite: universal suffrage.
“Under universal suffrage, each and every person born on American soil, born to American parents anywhere, or naturalized as a citizen would be automatically -- let me stress automatically -- registered to vote,” Rau explained during the virtual program Friday night.
One way that could work is by providing everyone turning 18 years old with a federally-issued voter registration card, Rau said.
“So voter suppression in my mind occurs when less than 100% of the voting age population is registered to vote in both federal and state elections,” he said.
Rau described how voter suppression is built into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“Neither of those documents guarantee the right to vote,” he said. “They leave it up to the states.”
As a result, at the country’s birth, just 6% of the voting-age population -- white, property-holding men -- qualified to vote, he said.
In the centuries since, Rau said disenfranchised groups have fought literal battles to join the privileged few -- from poor whites to white women and a tangled history of blocking the African American vote.
Dewhitt Bingham, a Heartland distinguished adjunct professor criminal justice sciences, said African Americans’ struggle toward suffrage dates back to 1619 when enslaved Blacks were first brought to the colonies.
When the United States declared its independence 150 years later, Bingham said, African Americans were building the foundation of the country’s economy, but weren’t included in its democratic process.
Later, the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, and constitutional amendments provided equal protection under the law and the right to vote to African Americans -- on paper. Jim Crow laws in 1865 allowed states to pass laws like the so-called “grandfather clause” that prevented most African Americans from voting.
Today, America is closer to universal suffrage than ever before, but that doesn’t mean voter suppression is a thing of the past, Bingham said. From voter intimidation by unofficial poll watchers to voter ID laws, banning same-day registration and reducing ballot drop-off locations, Bingham said there are many ways to steer people away from the polls.
The discussion turned to claims of voter suppression that dominated the 2018 race for McLean County Clerk when a program commenter asked about efforts to block the student vote.
One thing universal suffrage couldn’t solve is “the problem of a county official misallocating or underallocating polling places that are opposite of her political interests, which is the case with ISU students,” Rau said. “It’s inexcusable.”
“One of the things that always fascinates me is the justification for some of these voter suppression techniques,” added Paul Folger, a political science instructor at Heartland.
“When you think about the long lines and the distribution of polling places, gee, our local governments do want to save money, we don’t want to tax everyone to death, maybe we should cut back on one or two or three or five polling places,” he said. But when those cutbacks benefit one political party at the expense of another, “then what becomes a budget decision is now a political, partisan decision,” Folger said.
Bingham said voter fraud is another justification behind voter suppression efforts.
“Nobody should be voting illegally,” but voter fraud isn’t happening at the level that could threaten to throw an election, he said.
Folger agreed, saying, “All of those arguments about the power of the illegal vote are, pardon the pun, trumped up. It doesn’t exist. To the extent that it does exist, it’s absolutely miniscule.”
He said efforts to stop supposed rampant voter fraud end up actually disenfranchising eligible voters. “It’s kind of like the analogy, do we want to throw the baby out with the bath water?”
Rau said there’s a less obvious, more insidious form of voter suppression that allows people to vote, but strips their vote of any real impact.
“We also need to get private money out of public elections,” he said, calling the United States today not a true democracy, or even a Republic, but a “pay-to-play plutocracy” where the wealthy buy and sell politicians “the way some people buy and sell professional athletes.”
He added that reducing the influence of private money on the government would be much harder than achieving universal suffrage.
Rau said he thinks the country could come close to eliminating voter suppression.
“But to do so, I think you would need some kind of apolitical or bipartisan national commission that controls these federal registration cards,” he explained, giving the Social Security Administration as an example. “You don’t have Social Security repressing the issuance of Social Security cards.”
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