US Senator Bernie Sanders raised the issue of voter disenfranchisement in a public debate recently - so what is it and who does it affect?

United States president Donald Trump begins his re-election campaign making grandiose promises he cannot keep such as curing cancer and the more believable guarantee to eradicate AIDS from the country. He has also pledged to send people to Mars, while ironically also maintaining his stance on issues such as immigration.

While it remains baffling to many that he was elected for a first term, it is essential to understand what kind of tactics Trump and the wider Republic Party implement to sway the electoral pool – which at the very least affects voter turn-out and ultimately who becomes senior government officials.

Substantial research has begun to emerge to understand voter behaviour better and what has been found is that voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement disproportionately affects minority groups such as African-Americans, Americans of Hispanic descent, and women across all demographics – all generally found to identify or register as Democrats.

A study by the Pew Research Centre found that less than 3 percent of African-Americans register as Republican and fewer than 15 percent of the Hispanic community.

To elaborate, voter disenfranchisement and suppression are two different tactics deployed by politicians to sway votes in their favour. These tactics are not new and have been in effect and continue to affect American politics since the Jim Crow laws.

Voter disenfranchisement has recently come to surface with Democrat Bernie Sanders bringing this topic unto public debate last month. The topic broadly relates to the voting rights of prisoners and former prisoners. It involves stripping voting rights from criminals convicted of felonies within and without of prison.

Each state applies an individual policy towards the issue; some disallow those who have completed their sentences to vote, some disallow those on parole or probation to vote, and some states restore full civic rights after the sentence is complete including parole and probation.

Important here is to note that there is a disproportionate number of minority populations that are or have been incarcerated. Statistics from a 2018 study cites “as of 2010, approximately 3.9 million African American men and women the right to vote and amounting to a national African American disenfranchisement rate of 13.2%. Although many disenfranchised African Americans have been stripped of voting rights by laws targeting felons and ex-felons, the majority are literally 'missing' from their communities due to premature death and incarceration.”

More recently, a study conducted in by the Sentencing Project found, “As of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased.”

Half of this number is concentrated in six typically ‘red’ states – Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia –  where the report indicates more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.

More alarmingly, “One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.”

It is no coincidence that this excessively affects the voting rights of African-Americans as these practices come off of what was called the “Black Codes” of Florida that segregated the African-American population from schools. It also included the creation of new crimes such as “disrespecting employers” – historically white, ‘employing’ the black population. These laws were repealed time again most recently in 2018.

Voter suppression, on the other hand, refers to somewhat petty policies usually spearheaded by Republicans to tighten restrictions on voter identification.

A report in The Progressive explains, “And while it’s not against the law for state legislatures to redistrict or redraw its electoral maps, the Republicans have taken partisan redistricting to a new level. According to an estimate by the Brennan Center for Justice, Republican gerrymandering accounts for sixteen or seventeen GOP seats in the current Congress that the party might not otherwise control.”

Despite several studies and sources stating that the rate of voter fraud is almost non-existent in the US, Voter ID laws mandate that photo ID be presented at the time of casting the ballot.

While this at face value may seem harmless it, once again, almost targets minority groups more likely to be unable to access this due to many issues one being a lack of government facilities to do so in certain counties.

Women and transgender are affected the most because they are likely to change their names at some point in their lifetimes thus more likely to be unable to match names with those on their birth certificates.

According to the US Patriot Act, women’s names must be identical on certain official documents, a hyphenated last name, or married name, is grounds for suspicion against a document with her maiden name. A study from the University of California found that 29 percent of both transgender men and women are affected in states with stricter voter ID laws.

What is important is that citizens stay informed of all the latest amendments to these voter ID laws such as many states allowing your current identification along with a signed affidavit, having your information cross-checked by election officials after your ballot is cast, and a voter return inquiry sent to the address provided.

Minorities across the world tend to be discriminated against in several ways, but this deprivation of a basic and fundamental civil right in the land of the free is something that must be investigated and at the very least re-evaluated to ensure free and fair elections.

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