Massive attack on voting rights preceded election
Occupy Wall Street joined the NAACP in Manhattan December 10, 2011 to defend voting rights. Five years later and voting rights are still under attack. | Michael Fleshman/Flickr

America’s election system is a disgrace, as the 2016 presidential election once more demonstrates. This isn’t sour grapes. I’m disappointed that my candidate lost but the election is over, the results are in. What every American ought to be outraged at, however, is that the United States is still not a democracy of one person, one vote. Our electoral system is suppressing the right to vote for millions.

Start with the obvious. Hillary Clinton won the election, by a margin that may amount to 2 million votes. No need for a recount; she won big. But Donald Trump will be inaugurated president largely because he won three states – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – by a total margin of, at last count, 112,000 votes.

The U.S. doesn’t count presidential elections by one person, one vote. Instead the system counts electoral votes with the winner taking all in every state except Maine and Nebraska. This not only gives greater weight to small, rural states over large populous ones like California; it also makes for perverse campaigning in a few, closely divided “swing states,” with much of the country essentially ignored. The president of the United States governs all Americans, not just Americans grouped by state. This is the second election in 16 years in which the winner of the popular vote lost the election. This dangerously saps the legitimacy of the presidency. The Electoral College system survives only because most Americans know little about it.

America makes it hard to vote. Registration is not automatic on turning 18, allowing states to erect different hurdles for registering. Voting is usually on a workday that is not a national holiday. States set the laws allowing for infinite schemes designed to make it harder for some to vote. Voting is the most fundamental right in a democracy – and the U.S. perversely empowers petty, partisan officials in various states to whittle away at it.

2016 was the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, gutted by the right-wing gang of five on the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder. With Republicans shocked at Obama’s majority margins in 2008, Republican governors and legislatures pushed various schemes to make voting harder for the young, for people of color, and for working and poor people. Despite fierce legal battles, 14 states had various forms of voter suppression schemes in effect in 2016.

Various tricks and traps were put into effect. Early voting days were reduced. Sunday voting –  a favorite for African-American churches that organized to take our souls to the polls – was outlawed. Polling places were reduced in numbers, particularly in poor or African-American districts. Hours were restricted. New forms of voter ID was required, usually to disadvantage students or minorities disproportionately. Electronic machines with no paper record are widely used, virtually inviting vote manipulation. Voter rolls were purged – allegedly to address fraud – but with lists that always target African-American and Latino voters disproportionately.

In many states, former felons who had paid their debt to society are permanently deprived the right to vote. Six million citizens have been stripped of the right to vote, disproportionately people of color. In four states – including Florida and Virginia – more than one in five African-Americans has been disenfranchised.

In Wisconsin, the Republican governor and legislature pushed through new voter ID requirements. Three hundred thousand voters lacked the required ID; voter turnout was the lowest in two decades. In Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-Americans live, turnout was down 13 percent. The suppressed votes were likely far more than the margin of victory.

In North Carolina, the governor and legislature openly cheered the success of their efforts to curb early voting among African-Americans that resulted from slashing 158 polling places in the 40 counties with large numbers of African-American voters. On average, black voters stand in lines two times as long as white voters, in a conscious and systematic effort to make voting harder, particularly for those working jobs without flexible hours.

This list can go on, and it is an indefensible disgrace. This isn’t complicated. The American people should demand passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote and empowering the Congress to pass rules to protect that right. The candidate that wins the most votes should win presidential elections. Nothing radical, just common sense. National rules should make registration automatic and voting easy, not hard. The Voting Rights Act should be revived and strengthened. The Justice Department right now should be prosecuting states that violated basic voting rights.

When America was founded, only white, male property owners had the right to vote. Americans demonstrated and died, and fought a Civil War to end slavery, expand citizenship to all and expand the right to vote. Now partisan officials are trifling with the very foundation of our democracy. No republic can survive long without legitimacy. Donald Trump rightly called the Electoral College a disgrace, before he won office on the basis of it. If he cares about this country, he will lead the effort to reform our election laws, rather than accepting a system that perverts the will of the people.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He was a leader in the civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was twice a candidate for President of the United States. This article appears here courtesy of Rainbow PUSH.


Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He was a leader in the civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was twice a candidate for President of the United States. His articles appear here courtesy of Rainbow PUSH.