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A version of this article appeared originally in The Stanford Daily on November 30, 2011.
On November 2, 2004 I was an 18-year-old college freshman voting in my first election. I was excited because I would be casting my ballot in Ohio—a swing state where pundits claimed the election would be decided. When I arrived at my precinct’s polling station, I found a line that snaked through every room in the building, doubled back on itself, and ended outside, in the frigid rain. I waited for six hours before reaching the front, where I saw that only two voting booths had been allocated for around 1,800 voters. I missed class and dinner to cast my ballot, but my candidate conceded before the votes that we had waited hours in line to register were fully counted. I found out later that the 6–10 hour wait at my precinct had occurred all around Ohio—almost exclusively in college towns and in majority-black precincts—and that Republican-heavy districts were assigned many more voting booths (approximately one booth per 100 voters) than Democratic ones. This selective under-allocation of voting equipment was instituted by Secretary of State Ken Blackwell—co-chair of the Bush Campaign in Ohio at the time—and resulted in the systematic suppression of votes from Democratic constituencies. Bush won Ohio by a two-percent margin, giving him a second term. That night I stopped believing that elections in America were democratic or fair.
Four years later, I graduated into the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like many of my peers, I returned home to live with my mom, and after six months of searching unsuccessfully for a job in which I could use my degree, I took an unpaid internship and a part-time gig at a coffee shop. To this day, young people continue to bear the brunt of the recession: unemployment has increased far more for our cohort than for any other age group, entry-level jobs have turned into unpaid internships, and starting wages have plummeted. Tuition at public universities increases every year, even as subsidized educational loans and grants shrink or disappear entirely, leaving young graduates saddled with enormous debt they cannot pay off. Many of my peers are still living at home, searching for jobs that might justify, financially and intellectually, what they invested to earn a degree. We are the base of the Occupy movement.
Political and economic inequality in America are mutually reinforcing.
Though we like to say that democratically elected officials are accountable to the people, it is more accurate to say they are accountable to the voters. The deliberate disenfranchisement of Ohio voters in 2004 is an example of how democratic accountability is undermined by manipulating which blocks of the population are over- or underrepresented among voters. Policies that make it difficult for members of certain groups to vote, whether they be college students, the poor, ethnic minorities, or ex-felons, reduce the need for elected representatives to be responsive to those groups. Why are the needs of young people, the poor, and minorities de-emphasized in American public policy? Because they don’t vote. And why don’t they vote? In part because our electoral laws are designed—by our own representatives—to discourage it.
Attempts to disenfranchise traditionally Democratic constituencies have become increasingly common, justified by specious concerns about voter fraud. Most states require voters to re-register every time they change addresses, and by 2012 thirty-one states will require voters to show identification before casting a ballot. Several states have abolished early voting, which enables people who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day to vote at a more convenient time, and some states have restricted which organizations can register voters. Young people, particularly college students, move often, and, along with ethnic minorities, are far more likely to lack forms of identification accepted under the most stringent voter-ID laws. Both groups also tend to vote for Democrats—a fact not lost on Republican-controlled state legislatures that have passed these restrictions.
Political and economic inequality in America are mutually reinforcing: political inequality protects economic inequality from the segments of the public that would overturn it, while economic inequality perpetuates the gap in political influence between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The Occupy movement has finally elevated this problem in public discourse and made it possible to develop concrete goals for resolving it. Repealing all laws that place onerous burdens on citizens attempting to vote and holding public officials accountable for such discriminatory practices would be good places to start.
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