US elections: Why do so few vote?

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PHOTO: Michael Fleshman
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In presidential elections, almost half of voting-age people in the United States don’t vote. Millions are prevented from doing so. Winners, therefore, often get only 25 to 30 percent of the total voting age population. In 2018, turnout among 18-29 year-olds was only 36 percent, and only 27 percent for those without high school diplomas.

This in a country widely touted to be the most democratic nation of all. No wonder that civil rights protests are on the rise.

Voter suppression abounds. In 1965 The Voting Rights Act outlawed racist practices harkening back to the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South, which were installed to keep freed slaves from voting. In 2013 the Supreme Court gutted core provisions of that historic Act. Since then, southern states with a history of gross discrimination have been purging voter rolls at a rate 40 percent beyond the national average. Trump’s 2016 election was the first in fifty years to take place without the protections of that hard fought-for Voting Rights Act.

Another legacy of Jim Crow discrimination is preventing felons from voting. Felons have long been denied voting rights until their sentence is served, and in three states are still banned for life. Thirty-seven states prevent them from voting for years while on probation or parole. Over three million ex-felons were prohibited from voting in 2018. Three quarters of those in New York are Black or Latino.

In half the states other restrictions were quickly enacted after the 2013 Supreme Court decision. Hardest hit were Blacks, Native Americans, poor and disabled folks, elders, prisoners, and immigrants. Voter IDs requiring fixed addresses, for example, prevent houseless people or those living on tribal lands from registering. Many elders have no photo identification, because they no longer drive. Long distances to inaccessible polling places keep many impoverished, disabled and rural residents from voting.

Thirteen states have closed 1,688 polling places in the last six years, 750 of them in Texas. In Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina, voting places in hardest hit majority Black neighborhoods never reopened. One city moved its only polling place to the Jonesboro, Georgia police station, which has a history of abusing African Americans.

Gerrymandering — redrawing voting boundaries to split up poor, Black districts among several mostly-white precincts to dilute Black voter strength — is an old but still often used tactic. Newer methods include massive removal of people from voting rolls to “prevent fraud,” which is practically nonexistent.

Cutbacks on early voting and absentee ballots, shorter polling hours, long lines, and confusion over how to register or where to vote also contribute to the U.S. having lower voter turnouts than thirty other developed countries.

Barriers for third parties. There’s another reason half the country doesn’t vote — there’s no one to vote for! Even if all these suppression tactics were magically rolled back there are few candidates worth voting for. And the public knows it. Mainstream candidates are pro-capitalists who do not represent poor, working-class, and oppressed people. Only rarely can leftists get on any ballot.

Third parties are kept off the ballot by extensive bureaucratic hurdles, signature requirements and filing fees. The multimillionaire Democrats and Republicans buy up media ads, and get free coverage on news and talk shows. Their contestants are backed by the likes of Amazon. In New York, the ‘liberal’ Democratic Party is trying to raise the required number of votes for third-party ballot access from 50,000 to 250,000 — that is, block all progressive third parties. And they’re resurrecting Cold War red baiting. Hillary Clinton now calls Green Party leader Jill Stein a “Russian asset.”

Fightbacks revive a brave history. By grass-roots organizing, court cases and legislative victories are being won — evoking the dynamic Civil Rights voting rights movement of the 1960s. As described in Guerry Hoddersen’s 1981 article in this newspaper, “Derailing freedom’s train: voting rights marauders”:

“It was January 1965. The historic Selma campaign for Black voting rights was underway. Before it was over, three civil rights activists would be murdered and thousands beaten, gassed, trampled, and jailed by whip-wielding lawmen on horseback. …In August 1965, Congress finally succumbed to the uproar and overwhelmingly passed the Voting Rights Act.”

Voter rights battles by poor and Black communities are again surging, leading up to the 2020 elections. The Poor Peoples’ Campaign, Woke Vote, ACLU and numerous state offensives are on the job. Earlier this year a campaign by a Brennan Center-led coalition won a victory in New York State when an executive order allowed felons who have served their time to vote. Support is building for a Native American Voting Rights Act in the U.S. Congress (H.R. 1694). In Tennessee, the Equity Alliance registered 100,000 Black voters last year, but groups are being threatened with $5,000 fines for turning in forms with “errors or omissions.”

Since the National Prison Strike a year ago, seventeen states have introduced bills to lessen felony disenfranchisement. Florida voted overwhelmingly to allow felons to vote after their release from prison. The legislature tried to require them to pay all fines, fees, and restitution before voting. But an October court injunction stopped this outrageous “poll tax” attempt, for now.

What can people do? Speak out, organize, vote on ballot issues, and write in candidates. Urge labor, immigrant, Black, feminist, and LGBTQ communities to run independent, anti-capitalist contenders. Exploited communities recognize that the Democratic Party is not a dependable ally.

Demand direct, universal elections in which every resident has the right to vote. Dump the Electoral College which has imposed two recent presidents (G.W. Bush and Trump) who lost the popular vote. Abolish ballot-access hurdles against minor parties; provide equal public financing for all candidates, and mandate free and equal media coverage. Confirm that you are registered at

Under capitalism, of course, every electoral system is designed to maintain control by the ruling class. But united front battles for reforms have been won. They will be again — so long as the 99 percent keep their eyes on the prize and militantly battle for everyone’s right to vote.

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