Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Disenfranchisement: A Historical Tool of Racial Exclusion

Andrea Flynn

Racial inequality is alive and well in America, and conservatives are strategically dismantling one of the greatest tools in the arsenal against persistent injustices: the vote. The expansion and contraction of the right to vote has been an ongoing theme in U.S. history. When the right to vote has been expanded, it has often translated into greater social and economic inclusion and meaningful gains for black Americans. But as we describe in The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy, that inclusion and those gains have too often been met with fierce political resistance that leads to new modes of exclusion and disenfranchisement. The United States again finds itself in such a moment.

Black Americans today experience deep social and economic inequities. At every level of education, black Americans are paid less than their white counterparts. At every level of income, black Americans have drastically fewer assets than their white counterparts. Compared to white Americans, black Americans have higher rates of unemployment, accrue less wealth, and have lower rates of homeownership. But just as critically, even middle-income black Americans have unequal access to the quality-of-life goods—education, health, and safety—that economic success is expected to guarantee. These disparities are the result of and are reinforced by a host of rules—what we describe as racial rules—that have their roots in the darkest, earliest days of our nation.

A critical strategy for rewriting such rules is electing officials committed to fostering racial inclusion, and that largely depends on the ability of individuals who would most benefit from inclusive policies to vote. Today black voting participation is circumscribed by three types of racialized rules: the increased disenfranchisement of individuals with a criminal record, the 2013 Supreme Court decision effectively gutting the Voting Rights Act (VRA), and the subsequent passage of “voter suppression” laws that are making it increasingly difficult for progressive-leaning individuals to cast their vote, and by extension, rewrite the rules that govern their lives.

Since the earliest days of our nation’s history, states have enacted laws that prevent incarcerated individuals and those who have been convicted of a felony from voting. As we describe throughout The Hidden Rules of Race, the rules driving racial inequities across a range of social and economic indicators compound with the rules of the criminal justice system and make it much more likely that black Americans, and all people of color, will come into contact with that system and lose their ability to vote. Research shows that the harsher an individual’s contact with the state, the less likely they are to either choose or be able to vote. Today, all but 4 states prevent convicted felons from voting while incarcerated; 32 states bar felons on probation or parole from voting; and in 11 states convicted felons are disenfranchised for life.

The systematic electoral silencing of people of color weakens the fabric of our democracy and also has material impact on communities of color. According to economist Suresh Naidu, history shows that as disenfranchisement policies became more common, the amount of public goods the government distributed decreased, especially spending on education for schools in black communities. This disparate distribution of resources reinforces racial inequities that make it all the more likely that black Americans will come in contact with the criminal justice system.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) was meant to eliminate most of the Jim Crow-era structural barriers to full citizenship for black Americans, and by many measures it succeeded. It required states and jurisdictions with a history of racialized disenfranchisement to secure permission from the Department of Justice (DOJ) before making any changes to their voting laws. The VRA placed the onus on those jurisdictions to prove they weren’t discriminating and ultimately increased black voter turnout at the polls. The law is credited with preventing more than one thousand attempts to change local voter laws that would have negatively impacted black voters.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder significantly debilitated the strength of the VRA. Within 24 hours after that decision, five of the nine states that had been required to acquire preclearance from the DOJ before changing electoral rules introduced new voter suppression laws. As the LA Times reported in the wake of the 2016 election, in jurisdictions that were previously covered by the VRA, “voters saw 868 polling places closed, forcing too many people to travel as far as 25 miles just to be able to vote.” It is now clear that the changes to what was once heralded as the most important legislation to come out of the Civil Rights movement will have long-term effects on black Americans’ access to the ballot box, and therefore on the very issues that impact their lives.

A third set of racial rules sharply curtails black Americans’ access to the ballot. Other restrictions, such as voter ID requirements and ending or reducing early voting, have exacerbated the impact of these racial rules that are implemented by and large by Republican lawmakers. Between 2010 and 2014, 22 states planned to enact new voting restrictions, and in all but four, these laws passed entirely through GOP-controlled bodies. In 2016, fourteen states put in place voting restrictions ranging from photo ID requirements to cutting back early voting. Recent research shows that voter ID laws in Wisconsin—a state that Donald Trump won by a mere 22,000 votes—prevented roughly 200,000 people from voting, with a disproportionate impact on people of color. Compounding these challenges of voter restrictions are winner-take-all geographic districts and political and racial gerrymandering that serve to undercut the political power of black Americans and other racially marginalized groups.

The increasing disenfranchisement of voters of color takes place in the context of explicitly racialized threats against non-white Americans: police brutality against people of color, threats of deportation for immigrant families, and divestment from the social programs that low-income communities of color have historically relied on to stay afloat. As we describe in The Hidden Rules of Race, the racial rules of voting are deeply connected to and perpetuate inequities that shortchange so many black Americans: wage and wealth inequities, health disparities, and the re-segregation of American schools. Turning the tide against these injustices will require a multi-pronged and racially inclusive approach, including protecting access to the ballot for those at greatest risk of losing it.

Click here to read the Chapter 9 of The Hidden Rules of Race  The Racial Rules of Democratic Participation

About The Author

Andrea Flynn

Andrea Flynn is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where she researches and writes about issues that impact women and families. She explores connections between reproductive heal...

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