March 16, 2016

KOWALEWSKI | A Fundamental Right

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As the nation chooses the next president, it is worth considering not only who we vote for, but how we vote. At the moment, an array of factors continue to impede the voice of the right to vote. These laws and policies constitute an historical anachronism with no place in modern America democracy.

The most egregious example, and the most avoidable, arises from the concerted effort to pass voter identification laws. Since 2011, more than a dozen states, primarily those with Republican-controlled legislatures, have enacted laws requiring identification before an individual can cast their ballot. This seemingly innocuous policy — ostensibly to prevent voter fraud — has been demonstrated to have severe consequences.

A series of studies have shown that voter ID laws have the effect of disenfranchising voters, particularly African Americans, Latinos, youth and those who fall below the poverty line. These groups are less likely to have an acceptable form of government identification, and therefore more likely to be turned away at the polling place. Further, this distressing result occurs even though actual voter fraud has been shown to be exceedingly rare.

Voter identification laws are an alarming trend, reducing electoral participation at a time when voter turnout is already on the decline. This column could easily linger on this subject, detailing the multitude of ways that these laws intersect with historical and existing oppression. Currently, many of these laws are undergoing challenge in the courts and several have been struck down. At the very least, regardless of whether they pass constitutional muster, they are quite simply bad policy.

But the mantle of bad policy, unfortunately, is not uniquely held by the proposals of ideologically rigid conservatives. The on-going Democratic presidential race has exposed a process that suffers its own puzzling and harmful aspects. Namely, the continued use of caucuses as a method of determining the nominee.

In most states, the Democratic contest is resolved in a familiar, straightforward way. Voters head to the nearest polling place, cast their ballot and head home. Yet, in 14 states and several territories, it is not nearly as simple. These jurisdictions have decided to select their delegates through a presidential caucus, a system that defies the capacity of full explanation within this column. The overall differences, however, are stark. Rather than leaving polls open all day, and allowing voters to choose when they vote, caucuses occur during a narrow, designated timeframe. There is no provision for absentee voting and no exceptions for those who cannot make it.

Moreover, caucuses are not quick. Instead of casting a ballot and leaving, voters must assemble according to their preferred candidate. Often, each campaign will have the opportunity to make speeches beforehand. In addition, after the initial vote, if any candidate fails to meet a certain threshold of support, his or her supporters will be forced to reallocate their options to the remaining candidates. Caucuses, in fact, can take several hours. It should not surprise anyone that this confusing, time-intensive process would reduce voter turnout. And it does — caucus states tend to have much lower participation than those that host a primary.

The endurance of caucuses is difficult to trace to a greater rift among Democrats; it does not have any large implications for the ideological direction of the party’s nominee. Nonetheless, regardless of the effect on outcome, caucuses continue to violate key principles of the Democratic Party. In this year’s Nevada caucus, many low-income service workers were deprived of a vote because they could not take time off to attend the limited caucus hours. This is an unacceptable burden, and one that has been imposed on an untold number of voters. No one should be forced to choose between voting and putting food on the table. We can, and we must, do better.

This reform is sorely needed, and should take priority. Still, there are other idiosyncrasies that deserve reconsideration. Among the 4765 Democratic delegates for this cycle, nearly a fifth are superdelegates. They may support any candidate they wish, and they are chosen neither by primary nor by caucus. Instead, they are automatically bestowed a vote by virtue of being a prominent member within the party. Proponents of this system argue, accurately, that superdelegates tend to be well-respected and accomplished individuals. It has also been correctly stated that superdelegates have never changed the outcome of the modern nomination process; the majority of superdelegates have always sided with the majority of delegates selected by the electorate.

However, this is not a justification in itself. Superdelegates have a weak claim to their special rights. Since they are prominent figures, they have an unmatched capacity to sway the electorate through their spoken convictions and organizing efforts. Why, on top of this, should they get an extra vote? At best, superdelegates are an unnecessary technicality. At worst, in a close race, they have the potential to overturn the expressed will of Democratic voters. I do not think this should be part of our selection process for choosing a president.

The Democratic Party must live up to our name, and stand up for the values of democracy. Internal reforms will serve as a strong example, but they are not nearly enough. We must fight against all policies that threaten to reduce political participation. These include not only voter ID laws, but also gerrymandered congressional districts, a shortage of polling locations, the failure to implement automatic voter registration and perhaps even the outdated Electoral College.

Voting rights, in all forms, should be a top priority for all political activists, parties, elected officials and citizens. The United States of America has taken a long, difficult path to universal suffrage. To stop now would be a betrayal of the finest who have come before us.

Kevin Kowalewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at krk78@cornell.edu. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.