Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Up until now, I thought of "voter suppression" as a mildly annoying problem that had some faint potential to swing the election. An inconvenience really, but not a critical issue except in close races. But while reading today's profile of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted's serial attempts to cut early voting options and throw out certain types of ballots (props to Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic for his reporting), it suddenly dawned on me that voter suppression is much more pernicious than I'd once thought. It is indicative of graver issues, reflecting a dangerous undercurrent of intolerance in America.

The behavior of Republicans like Husted and many others like him, who attempt to restrict legitimate participation in the electoral process, makes me feel like these white voters just don't like the way minority voters cast their ballots and will do what they can to make sure our voices aren't heard.

I'm sorry, but I grew up thinking that the 1960s were over -- that we lived in a tolerant, pluralistic, democratic society. I was wrong. It's so scary and sad that the older you get, the more clearly you see that life isn't the storybook we call "history." Reality is far more sordid.

In suppressing the vote, the idea being communicated is: "Let’s keep those minorities from voting! They’ll vote for change, they’ll vote for things different than what we want!" (Which so often these days seems to be a white-washed version of America, or at least a white-dominated America with minorities kept in their place). "So we’ll just make sure their votes don’t count and their voices aren’t heard. We don’t want them as part of the political process."

You know what that implies? Those minorities aren’t people; they aren’t legitimate citizens; and therefore they shouldn’t be included as part of the political process. Maybe not even as part of America. It’s so dehumanizing, I feel sick to my stomach.

Racism is not gone. It doesn't matter that we are taught not to discriminate when we are young; people still do it. Proudly, it sometimes seems. Racism exists, whether it's draped in the justifications of partisan combat ("Hey, it's just politics, so all this behavior is perfectly legitimate when contesting an election.") or the supposed "defense" of the ballot box by the gathering hordes committing voter intimidation. Their campaigns are not the selfless act of citizenship they purport them to be, but in actuality, a movement motivated by partisan aspirations. Voting fraud is a bad act, but there isn't evidence of any widespread attempts to commit it; it is a rare crime indeed. In any case, this suspicion of minority participation in elections appears to be rooted in a deeper problem of race.

Growing up, I believed we lived in an enlightened society -- that America had learned the lessons from the horrific apartheid conditions enforced in the South by the power of the state and the virulence of the mob. But in some sense, we haven't really. How can I look my international friends in the eye and proclaim the beauty and inclusiveness of democracy when we haven't even achieved this at home?

I never thought I would have to fight these battles in my own country. Maybe I was lucky: I'm from California where race isn't as much of an issue. Perhaps that's because we are a diverse state, with enough immigrants from around the world to fill our classrooms, patronize our shops, share our supermarkets. Almost everybody is from elsewhere, but we all contribute to Silicon Valley, this place we call home. Yet there's so much of this country where that is absent. I have to remind myself from time to time that in most places in the United States, people of Asian descent are a minority. We often aren't seen as part of the social fabric because we simply don't exist! On the occasion that we make an appearance, we are exotic curiosities, "that Asian family" that just moved into town because the father got a job at the nearby state school doing bioengineering research. (And that poor little Asian girl -- she's going to grow up rejecting her culture and striving to be white. But that's another story.)

By enacting policies of voter suppression, elections become tools to control and to oppress, rather than expressions of a common belief in democracy. When the registrars organizing Election Day make voting about partisanship, rather than a celebration of our democratic ideals, they undermine the power of this rite to unite the nation, to bind us together as a polity. Elections are a contest, no question about it, but participation in the act of voting is supposed to be universal because at our core we share the belief in citizenship and the franchise.

If you don't believe in the idea of "one person, one vote" just say it. If you don't believe all of us should have a voice in the political process, just say it. Then we can have a fight about what democracy really is. It's a question of whether "democracy in America" should be inclusive or exclusive; if society should embrace our myriad families with all our distinct backgrounds, ideas and beliefs; if America should gather all her children together in her arms, or if certain elements should be locked out of the house because they are different -- and then chased across the street and eventually hounded out of town.

The issues here are intertwined and complicated, because it's not just about racism; it's about the franchise. I contend that there's a difference between voting based on ethnic/racial/class/community/cultural identity (a legitimate expression of politics), compared to voting for a partisan platform that aims to suppress other groups and validates government action to suppress other groups' participation in politics. Perhaps then, my problem with these government and citizen campaigns to intimidate and discount voters isn't just the racist aspect of it, which is problematic in its own right, and thoroughly undesirable, hearkening back to Jim Crow. It's that these voter suppression efforts are deeply undemocratic. In a mature and functioning democracy, you don't win elections by taking the right to vote away from other people; you contest ideas.

Partisan identification maps to culture, and I'm fine with that. I can decide not to vote for a party that has an exclusive, backward-looking vision of America that has no room for my siblings, my parents, my friends and colleagues, that has no room for me. However, it's not just the fact that these people dislike minorities -- that's their personal, possibly unenlightened, preference. It's that they are taking that dislike and proclaiming "those kinds of people don't get to vote." In a democracy, that's unforgivable. (But again, it hits especially hard when you realize people are eliminating your vote on the basis of race.)

In the battle for voting rights, we are not taking taking up the struggle against racism -- at least not head on. But we do have to fight for a voice, because we can't be a democratic society if we deny people the right to vote. I'm pretty confident [okay, I'm somewhat confident; but hey that's what we've got to work with here] that in a truly free, fair, liberal and open democratic system [UPDATE: buttressed by a civic culture and with broad opportunities for educational attainment], minorities won't be as easily intimidated or abused or cordoned off or deprived of rights; and over time, we can change how different groups in society perceive of each other. But if the participatory democratic machinery can't even function, we've got a real problem on our hands.

Racism is a fight for the long haul, and we won't be able to end it now, however nice that would be. But the fight for democracy is a fight for now, and we have to demand it and build it and protect it every single day.

  • I thought "voter suppression" just constituted a few marginal votes being cut out, which is somewhat annoying, but not terrible, except when it tilts a close election.
  • Then I realized this constitutes institutional suppression of the opposition. That is WRONG and a subversion of democracy. Regimes that subvert democracy include Mubarak's Egypt and Putin's Russia.
  • Even worse, that suppression is guided by racist hatred. Even today, in 2012. SCARY!
  • However, the way to address the problem isn't to end racism now. It's impossible to turn over culture so quickly.
  • Instead, we must defend the democratic process and fight for our right to vote, for our own voice, and the voices of everyone in our community, and in all communities.
  • Only by safeguarding civic rights as enshrined in the Constitution can we protect minorities from abuse by the majority and combat injustice, even as the larger campaign for a freer and fairer society takes place.
Relevant articles:
"The Ballot Cops" (The Atlantic)
"Voting Wrongs" (The New York Review of Books)
James Fallows' roundup of numerous articles

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