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Disenfranchisement and Voter Suppression: Background information when reading Fortress America

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Fortress America

How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy

by Elaine Tyler May

Fortress America by Elaine Tyler May X
Fortress America by Elaine Tyler May
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  • Published:
    Dec 2017, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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Disenfranchisement and Voter Suppression

This article relates to Fortress America

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Despite the fact that voting in a federal election is a primary and vital constitutional right held by American citizens over 18 years of age, the playing field for voters is not equal from one state to another.

Voting place indicator In Fortress America, Elaine Tyler May argues that disenfranchisement holds individuals back from contributing to their communities. She emphasizes the importance of the right to vote as an essential aspect of American citizenship. By the turn of the twenty-first century, she reports, one in forty adults was unable to vote as a result of a criminal conviction and the rights of criminals to regain their right to vote after release varies from state to state, even for national elections.

Research from the Scholars Strategy Network confirms this. In 2012, the institute reported that 5.6 million Americans were forbidden to vote because of disenfranchisement relating to criminal offenses. As of 2012, prisoners in American prisons had lost the right to vote in every state except Maine and Vermont but this only accounted for one-fourth of the 5.6 million. This is because "thirty U.S. states deny voting rights to convicts on probation, and thirty-five states disenfranchise parolees. In the most extreme cases, eleven states continue to deny voting rights even to some 'ex-felons' who have successfully fulfilled their prison, parole, or probation sentences."

In 2016, KQED, a public service media organization in California, created an interactive map of the USA which shows the level of disenfranchisement of felons in each state, depending on their status e.g. inmate, on probation, on parole, ex-felon. It is noteworthy that the swing state of Florida has the highest level of disenfranchised individuals at over 1.5 million and that the margin of victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election was approximately 130,000 votes. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points to particular problems with voter restoration rights in Iowa, Kentucky and Florida, emphasizing that the patchy laws across the nation consistently and disproportionately affect African Americans because of discriminatory incarceration policies in recent decades, as well as historical Jim Crow legislation.

The ACLU identifies a range of ways in which voters are suppressed and therefore less able or likely to cast their vote. These include:

  • Cutting back on early voting, which can disadvantage the sick and elderly.
  • Introducing laws that require voters to provide some form of identification in order to vote or receive a ballot for an election. Some states accept non-photo IDs such as utility bills but 17 require a photo ID and 17 states ask for a photo ID. An estimated 11% of the U.S. population does not have a government-issued photo ID such as a driving license.
  • Making it harder for people to vote when they report to the wrong precinct.
  • Reducing the number of polling stations to create long lines and deter voters.
  • Gerrymandering–the redrawing of voting district lines in order to tilt results in one party's favor.

Picture of voting place indicator by Tom Arthur

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Kate Braithwaite

This article relates to Fortress America. It first ran in the February 7, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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