With ethnic and racial minority populations in the United States rising, there is a growing population of voices that remain unaccounted for. Though current legislation has been implemented to ensure fair and impartial voting access, there is too much leeway given to state governments in the voting system’s execution. As a result, restrictions in the election system have resulted in systematic discrimination toward minority populations, making them ineligible to vote.
Voter ID laws have underlying racial biases and prevent minorities from engaging in active democratic participation. These requirements compel an individual to present his or her ID in order to cast a ballot on Election Day. Obtaining an ID can be costly and requires an individual’s birth certificate, which may be burdensome. Proponents advocate for the law under the guise of preventing voter fraud and ensuring that only voter-eligible citizens partake in elections; however, individuals who lack government-issued identification are more likely to be younger, less educated, and impoverished, and—most notably—nonwhite. An example of the inherent discrimination of voter ID laws can be found in the implementation of Georgia’s “exact match” system. This program requires an individual’s voting status to be suspended if the name on their driver’s license or Social Security records does not exactly match the name they inputted on their voter registration form. Of the 51,000 individuals that this law affected in 2018, 80 percent of them were African American. There is evidence that the “exact match” law played a role in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, as African American candidate Stacey Abrams lost by approximately 55,000 votes.
It is also far more difficult for members of minority communities to be able to locate polling places on Election Day. Only 5 percent of white survey respondents reported that they had trouble finding polling locations, compared to 15 percent of African American and 14 percent of Hispanic respondents. When deciding where to place a polling station, election officials are required to assign each precinct a designated station based on factors such as population, accessibility, and location recognizability; locations may be changed at the officials’ discretion. Minorities have a lower voter turnout compared to whites and, in many cases, this has resulted in discriminatory polling place distributions. Disparities in polling places can also be the result of a change in the majority of election officials; minority populations are more likely to be left-leaning and, as a result, officials may shift polling locations to areas that are more representative of their political ideals.
Another major issue is the access to translated voting materials, which greatly decreases minority voter turnout. In communities that spoke little English, translated voting ballots were found to be responsible for increasing voter turnout by 11 points in the 2004 presidential election. In addition to increased voter turnout, the translated ballots allowed for higher voter engagement on all legislation. A concept known as “voter fall-off” incentivizes people who are at the polls to vote on more legislation and to answer more questions if the ballot is available in their native language. Often, ballot proposition measures are reading-intensive, making it difficult for minority language groups to fully comprehend and form an opinion on the proposed legislation. Current law (including Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act) requires all written voting materials to be made available in the language of the relevant minority group, but there are many restrictions. For instance, the number of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) citizens of voting age must exceed 10,000, must make up 5 percent of all eligible voters, or exceed 5 percent of all Native American reservation residents. Additionally, for any of the above groups, the illiteracy rate of the minority population must also be higher than the national illiteracy rate.
With the 2020 elections fast approaching, it is integral that we are encouraging active participation in our democracy and lifting restrictions that prevent minority populations from voting. Today, organizations and individuals are bringing cases of voter discrimination to court in an attempt to rewrite these wrongdoings. Furthermore, states such as New Jersey are reaching out to minority individuals via phone banks about election options, and they are also creating translated voting materials in Gujarati, Korean, Spanish, and English. Campaigns by public figures to encourage voter participation have been taking off, and the 2020 primary election is expected to have the highest voter turnout in decades. As Thomas Jefferson said, “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”
Sarina Vij is a recent graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles.