by Brandon Kemp
There is no act as evocative of the modern democratic process as voting. Unfortunately, as any student of U.S. history knows, there have always been obstacles to exercising this most basic of rights for indigenous and colonized peoples, African Americans, women, and even poor whites in our nation’s history. To the extent that these groups gained access to the instruments of political participation, they did so through heroic, prolonged, and in some cases ongoing struggle. Today we may add to that list the millions of undocumented immigrants and their families who live, work, and pay taxes in the U.S. without political representation or an equitable path to citizenship as well as nonviolent prisoners—disproportionately black and brown—systematically denied their civil rights, including their right to vote, within an ever-expanding for-profit prison industry. As these and other new democratic struggles unfold, they ought to remind the casual observer that American democracy, far from being a given, largely remains a work in progress.
What’s more, in these battles to expand electoral access and popular control, legislative gains, absent mass pressure from below, can be remarkably ephemeral. One of the most startling recent reminders of this fact was the Supreme Court’s decision to effectively gut key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Following this, swathes of Southern states—including Tennessee, Texas, North and South Carolina, and Georgia—passed laws that erected new barriers to voting, most commonly through the introduction of stringent requirements around official I.D.’s. What does this mean for students here on the Domain? Amendments to the Photo Voter I.D. law sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Representative Susan Lynn (R-Mount Juliet) forbid students to use an out-of-state driver’s license for proof of identification at the polls, effective January 2014. Previously, it was possible for students to simply register, get their card in the mail, and then cast their ballot. Now, if students from, say, Alabama or Georgia want to vote here, they will have to make the 45-minute drive to the D.M.V. to get a Tennessee I.D. or driver’s license. Alternatively, Sewanee students could make use of an absentee vote in their home state provided they are already registered to vote back home. In this case, they must first apply for an absentee ballot weeks in advance from their county election office, fill it out with witnesses, and send it back via “snail mail.” (Passports issued in any state are still allowed for voting as long as one is registered in Tennessee.)
But laws such as this do not just inconvenience students; they disproportionately affect people of color, poor and working-class communities, and the elderly, demographics which are some of the least likely to carry the types of I.D. required by these new laws. According to the National Commission on Voting Rights, African Americans are more likely than whites to lack such I.D. by a ratio of 3:1 while those earning less than $35,000 are twice as likely as those earning more to lack it. In other words, these laws do much in the way of obstructing the participation of these groups in the electoral process while appealing to thoroughly debunked allegations of “voter fraud” as justification. Justin Levitt of NYU Law School, who was behind one major study on the issue, concluded with others that “the type of individual voter fraud supposedly targeted by recent legislative efforts—especially efforts to require certain forms of voter I.D.—simply do not exist.” A five-year investigation by the Bush administration reached similar conclusions.
Although we often pride ourselves on our democratic heritage as Americans, it is sobering and important to remember that “the world’s oldest democracy” was not even a formal democracy on the books until 1965, and an honest evaluation reveals that we probably still have a long way to go before we can call ourselves a democracy in the most robust sense of the word. While it’s true that full and equal access to voting doesn’t automatically translate into even the modicum of economic democracy needed to stifle big business’s stranglehold on the political process, it can nevertheless be a powerful weapon when yielded by ordinary people mobilized by their desire to create a better world. If we want to see that vision of society realized, we will have to fight for it both in the streets and, yes, at the ballot box as well.