“Voting in the U.S.A.”
It’s the end of October 2020 and we are in the high season of election time in the U.S. It’s fascinating to watch and to be a part of, especially in 2020 where tempers are high, emotions run wild and it is difficult to know what is and what is not factual.
Voting in the U.S.A. has always been an interesting event.
Having grown up in Germany, having friends in multiple countries around the world, and having lived in various places in the U.S., I can say that “where you live matters” when it comes to voting in the U.S.
As a historian I can say, where you live and what your socio-economic status is matters when it comes to voting in the U.S.
These insights provide an amazing perspective as the U.S. tends to portray itself as the beacon of democracy, although it is not a real democracy – and there currently is on real democracy anywhere in the world. There are only countries that embrace parts of the democratic approach and philosophy. That said, even in that the U.S. has always been different as it has the electoral college, which to many Europeans for example, is mind-boggling and takes away from the idea of citizens voting for the President of the U.S. This is also clear in a number of historical elections, where the candidate with the majority of the popular vote (people’s voices) did not actually win the election; An interesting twist in a country that uses the term “democracy” widely. In addition, for many years the U.S. held the record in the least voter participation among all democracy-focused countries.
More to my points: your location and socio-economic status matters when it comes to voting in the U.S. The U.S. has a history of implementing ways to make voting difficult for certain groups of people. Let’s start with the day that voting takes place. Of course, there have been changes throughout history and we see that in today’s election season in particular where absentee voting has increased due to the current pandemic and fears associated with being around too many other voters. Since the mid-1850s election day in the U.S. has been on a weekday. This fact means that people who work may have less of a chance to get to vote, unless you live in a state where election day is a holiday or your employer is required to make a certain amount of hours available for you to go and vote. What, though if the allotted time allowed is shorter than the line you have to wait in?
(As a side note: In most European countries, for example, election day is on a weekend or it’s a holiday to enable as many people as possible to vote)
This year there is a lot of discussion about voter suppression and yes, it is happening and no, it’s not new. Ever since the 13th Amendment voter suppression has existed in the U.S. Whether this suppression is open and easily identifiable or not throughout history various on your perspective.
Voter suppression can, after all, take various forms. It ranges from perceived fear of what might happen if a person votes, to being persuaded that your vote does not matter, to outright intimidation. All those have happened and continue to happen the U.S. every election and this year all that has been further amplified. It has been amplified by excluding people from voting who have unpaid parking tickets, to moving polling stations into areas where some people have a more difficult time reaching them, to simple in-person intimidation and more.
It started with discouragement of African Americans on the heels of the 13th Amendment. That is why the 14th and then the 15th Amendments were needed. Then the intimidation and suppression continued and the first Civil Rights Act became necessary in 1866. Since then we have had future iterations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the discussion is ongoing. If everyone had equal rights to cast their vote, why where those and why are those necessary?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just African Americans who are being discouraged, in the last midterm elections we witnessed a new suppression technique targeted Native Americans. And in this election it almost seems like a “free-for-all” on specific groups of people. Many of those share the same socio-economic situation. That means they are not necessarily able to take off work to vote, many don’t have transportation to get to a voting place that now has been moved miles and miles away from their location, and many don’t have someone to watch the children if they do try and cast their ballots.
These aspects are why many other countries that engage in “free and fair elections” make sure that Election Day – and election season – is as equally accessible to all members of society as possible. It’s a holiday or weekend, transportation can be provided by communities, cities, and states, and there are plenty of voting locations everywhere. This makes voting possible for anyone, regardless of socio-economic needs or mobility. This is very different in the U.S., as I have now witnessed for years.
When I lived in Southeast DC during an election period I had to wait in line for hours and the polling place almost wanted to close, even though there were still many eligible voters outside. This was in a predominantly African-American and lower socio-economic neighborhood. Compare this to other areas I have lived in that are mid-or upper socio-economic regions: early voting places, easily accessible, wait maybe for 1 – 2 hours if any with plenty of election volunteers. There is a clear difference and in 2020 that difference has become even greater. We keep hearing and seeing voting lines that last for many hours, polling places ready to shut down even though there are voters outside, and questioning of who is allowed to vote.
The fact that even the President is engaging in a proven false-narrative about the unreliability of mail-in voting adds fuel to the existing worries, especially those that “my vote does not matter” or “my vote will not be counted.” This narrative is proven false given that a number of states in the U.S. have for years been using mail-in voting to enable as many eligible voters as possible to participate in the election and exercise their right and duty to vote. Colorado is just one of those. In addition, U.S. Americans working overseas are not able to simply return to vote and they have, also for years, voted by mail (absentee voting). There is no evidence that there has been any kind of major issue or even fraud in this type of voting – as confirmed by politicians and experts on all sides of the political and philosophical spectrum. Yet, the argument is being promoted and it does discourage some people.
In 2020 the question before me, as a historian and mother and human, is: why? Why is voting in the U.S. so different and made so difficult for so many? Why is voting in the U.S. being touted as wonderful when this time around we may need outside election observers to ensure accurate ballot counting? Why is voting in the U.S. the least open and accessible among democracy-embracing countries?
Voting in the U.S. is surely an interesting journey and reflection of what values exist in the U.S.