How Massive Voter Disenfranchisement Decides American Elections
The disenfranchisement of convicted felons has altered the outcome of governors races, key senate races, and even presidential elections, says political science professor Marie Gottschalk.
Marie Gottschalk is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in American politics, with a focus on criminal justice, health policy, race, the development of the welfare state, and business-labor relations.
Her latest book is Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton University Press, 2014). She is also the author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge University Press, 2006), which won the 2007 Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians, and The Shadow Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States (Cornell University Press, 2000).
Professor Gottschalk is a former editor and journalist and was a university lecturer for two years in the People’s Republic of China. She was a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York and was named a Distinguished Lecturer in Japan by the Fulbright Program. She served on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences National Task Force on Mass Incarceration and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration. She is a contributor to the Academy's final report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (National Academies Press, 2014).
She has a B.A. in history from Cornell University, an M.P.A. from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from Yale University.
Marie Gottschalk: About 6 million people of the latest data, I think, coming from going into the 2012 election were unable to vote because of a previous criminal conviction and it varies from state to state. Florida is at the very high end of that. Studies have been done and said that this actually impacts elections. If you think about how many, what portion of those people would have voted? How many of them would likely have voted for a Democrat? And you correct for socioeconomic data, that these are people coming from low socioeconomic status who are less likely to vote. You run all that saying all things being equal then in fact had you not had such massive felon disenfranchisement in Florida, the Democrats, Al Gore would have easily won the state and therefore easily would have won the 2000 election and none of us would have known what hanging chads are.
We also had data that’s done on the 1990s and said that a number of governors races would have gone in a different way had there not been this massive felon disenfranchisement. And also key senate races as well. So it affects — it’s so huge and it’s so concentrated in certain states because some, certain states don’t have felon disenfranchisement at all and that certain states like Florida have massive felon, and Virginia, massive felon disenfranchisement that it affects outcome of some elections. After the Civil War, there was an effort to disenfranchise African-Americans and also poor whites because there were fears about the populous movements and blacks and whites joining together. So in the late 19th century, early 20th century we had a massive disenfranchisement in this country. Some states like Louisiana, the turn of the century, only about 15 percent of the “eligible” adult male population was actually voting because of these massive disenfranchisements. So poll taxes, literacy taxes, but also laws that said if you had certain criminal convictions you would not be able to vote. And ironically, in some states, because it was so targeted towards the African-American population in some states it was targeted towards people who had committed petty crimes. So we still have in one or two Southern states where you could have committed homicide, but you’re still allowed to vote. But if you’ve committed petty theft and convicted of that, you’re not allowed to vote. And this is a vestige from the Civil War years when whites were more likely to have committed homicide and African-Americans were going to be picked up for many of these more petty crimes and therefore be disenfranchised.
Some states have been extending the franchise again so they had a very important ballot measure in Rhode Island a few years ago. And a very effective campaign led by formerly incarcerated people, some of whom had done very serious crimes and they were able to frame this issue in a way that resonated with the public. And in fact re-enfranchised a number of people. In some other states, we’ve had backsliding depending on a switch in the legislature, a switch in the governor’s offices. I think it’s important to see felon disenfranchisement as part of this larger big contraction of the U.S. voting population now. So it’s part of voter ID, voter registration, closing down polling booths, reducing the number of days that people can vote. And in the 2000 election, it wasn’t just that people were disenfranchised, but it was also how that was politically used. So there was not an effort to have accurate lists of voters so that you were not only disenfranchised, but you had an inaccurate list. And then you had the fears of people going to vote that day and being told you’re a convict. So then that’s going to keep you home too because of that public stigma. So I think when we think felon disenfranchisement, we can’t just think about these 6 million people. We have to think that this is a larger strategy about shrinking the electorate in the United States.
The massive disenfranchisement of convicted felons — totaling 6 million uncounted potential votes in the 2012 presidential election — has decided governors races, key senate races, and even presidential elections, says political science professor Marie Gottschalk. Sadly, this is only one way the American electorate has been undemocratically shrunk. Voter identification laws, poll taxes, literacy tests, and disenfranchisement laws that historically targeted poor individuals are a lasting stain on our democratic principles. "This is a vestige from the Civil War years," says Gottschalk, "when whites were more likely to have committed homicide and African-Americans were going to be picked up for many of these more petty crimes and therefore be disenfranchised." Some states, like Rhode Island, are working to re-enfranchise a number of people, but there is much more to be done.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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