Voting is one of the pillars of representative democracy. It gives the public a chance to voice its opinion on how the government is doing. Often, this means voting against the majority and bringing about a change in government.
Like most countries, America has a voluntary voting system. People of voting age can choose whether or not to make their way to the polling booths and have a say in who runs the government. In the 2008 presidential election, 63 percent of eligible voters turned out – this is compared with participation rates above 95 percent in countries that have mandatory voting like Australia, Belgium and France.
Some make the argument that since voting is a choice, people should not be forced to cast their vote. But this also gives many people an option to not actively participate in politics. Oftentimes, these are the very same people who complain that government isn’t doing what it is supposed to.
Leaving aside the debate about whether compulsory voting should be introduced, a far more disturbing trend has been introduced that is severely hindering the ability of many minority groups to participate in the voting process. Thirty-four states require a government-issued photo ID in order to vote. While this may seem like common sense, it leaves a number of voters disenfranchised and unable to vote.
An estimated 11 percent of U.S. citizens do not have government-issued photo ID. This constitutes about 21 million people of voting age – more than the entire population of my home country, Australia. More and more states are passing laws that would not allow these people to vote unless they are able to access a photo ID.
Many of the people who don’t have these cards are the under-represented – minority groups such as African-Americans and Latin Americans, the elderly and the poverty-stricken. Twenty-five percent of black voting-age citizens do not have a government-issued photo ID, compared to just 8 percent of white voting-age citizens. These are the very groups that government should be encouraging to get involved in political life, and instead they are being pushed away and told that their opinion is, for one reason or another, invalid.
While one can understand the motivations behind stricter voting laws – particularly in southern states with an influx of illegal immigrants who do not have the right to vote – the fact remains that the system as it stands still has a number of problems. Legislators need to figure out a way to include less privileged groups in the voting process, lest their voice is not included in political discourse.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin enacted one of the strictest voter identification laws in the country. Under the new law, which will come into effect in February 2012, voters will be required to present a valid government-issued ID at the polling booth. For those who do not have statutory ID, options are limited. They can fill in a provisional ballot, but this ballot is only counted if they can provide government-issued ID to election inspectors by the Friday following Election Day.
The system in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, requires serious reform. It allows little leeway for groups who do not have ready access to statutory ID. While the Wisconsin law makes provisions for the elderly, whose identity can be verified by a letter signed by the voter and two deputies, it makes no provisions for other minority groups, such as Native Americans, or those people too impoverished to furnish the election inspectors with suitable photo ID.
In the 2008 presidential election, Wisconsin had the second-best voter turnout in the nation, with nearly 71 percent of the voting age population casting their ballots. Only Minnesota had a better participation rate, with nearly 76 percent of voters casting ballots. Part of this comes down to the fact that Wisconsin has very few minority citizens, but it is still a fact to be proud of. Why, then, is the government doing its best to make voting harder? The state should try to preserve its historically strong record of political participation, but instead it seems to be doing everything in its power to make voting harder.
It has long been one of the tasks of representative democracy to give a voice to the voiceless. Voting laws like those passed in Wisconsin and elsewhere are doing exactly the opposite. America claims to be a beacon of democracy, and for the most part, it fulfills this role. But when its governments are passing laws that restrict the democratic rights of the very citizens who need it the most, perhaps they should rethink just how perfect America’s “democracy” is.
Shawn Rajanayagam ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and American studies.