Thursday, September 15, 2005

How America Fails the Poor at the Polls

In a discussion of the American Underclass, BOP Reader Ralph Slate commented:
"I agree with everything you say is true. I do not like living in a society where something you did, or failed to do, 2, 3, 5, 10, or even 20 years ago is a barrier to your success. However, there is one tool that poor people consistently fail to use. It's the voting booth."
I don't know that they "fail" to use this tool so much as they fail to surmount the obstacles deliberately created to prevent them from voting.

Ian Welsh tangentially touched on this in his original article, actually: incarceration.

I live right now in one of the half-dozen states of the union where felons have their voting rights permanently revoked. In states where ex-felons may appeal for restoration of their voting rights, the appeal process is often Byzantine, as well as under-publicized: many people do not know the restoration of their voting rights is even possible. Consider at the colour bias in the judicial system, and the class bias, and you will see that these practices disproportionately disenfranchise the poor, African Americans, and Hispanics.

Another factor outside of Ian's article that strongly contributes to low electoral participation by the poor is deliberate vote suppression--a perennial tactic of the Republican party.

For example:
  • telling Republicans to vote on Tuesday (election day) and Democrats to vote on Wednesday;

  • telling voters that immigration officials will be at the polls and will deport on the spot their *family* members if they don't have proper ID;

  • telling voters that if they have a criminal record of any kind or are behind on child support payments they will be barred from voting and/or arrested.

    These tactics are generally accomplished through fliers or sound trucks. Voter intimidation can be as simple as large numbers of uniformed law enforcement personnel at the polls--in a community where a police offer is regarded as an adversary rather than an ally.

    Funny thing is...Republicans hold their vote suppression campaigns in neighborhoods that are poor and colored. You don't see this stuff for some reason in Martha's Vineyard.

    And if you find it all implausible, think about the quality of your education...and compare it to the kind of neglected, under-funded public education systems that Ian wrote about. Look at the demographic and geographic breakdown of American's national 20% illiteracy rate while you're at it, too. One of the strongest "lessons" of the current American education system seems to be "don't question authority." Why should poor voters "know" to vote when authority figures tell them to stay home?

    I have to be honest: if I couldn't read well enough to understand a newspaper; if I was working part-time jobs at Wal-mart and the Waffle House to try to feed my family; if I couldn't afford the time away from work to go and vote and expected to lose the job that pays my rent if I tried it; and I was facing the prospect of being arrested or having my parents deported in exchange for the honor of choosing at the polls between two rich white guys whose track records showed they didn't know or care that I existed and didn't have a clue of how I lived...I don't know how hard I'd try to vote. I don't know how pumped up I'd feel about my civic duty. I don't know that I would feel like a valuable part of the democratic process. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that facing a choice between casting a vote and feeding my children, I'd put my children first--and keep trying to tread water, and hope they catch a break that I never will.

    In fact, the other "funny thing," is that the states with the strongest policies of disenfranchising felons...are Republican dominated states.

    It is the poll tax all over again, my friend.

    Republicans want the only votes in this country to be cast by fat, comfortable, snow-white Americans who can be convinced that rocking the boat might threaten their status quo of getting and spending in the guilt-free bliss of willful ignorance.

    The low election turnout by the poor is the direct result of deliberate Republican disenfranchisement policies (and politics). Please don't believe for a minute it's because the poor are "failing" to make things better for themselves.

    We are failing the poor.



  • Update: cross-posted, with excellent contributions in the comments, at BOP News
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