Maintaining poverty through restrictive voter registration laws

Barriers to entry, typically established and enforced by the legal system for the benefit of those that control the political-economic system, have been an important way for establishing and perpetuating “second-class citizens” to be kept in poverty, so their work as cheap labor can benefit others. Slavery of course is the classic example in the United States.   But what arose after slavery was just as important, a complex of laws including labor contracts slanted very much toward land owners, “vagrancy” laws to keep poor people on the land, onerous debt provisions leading to debt peonage, and, last, but by no means least, keeping the vote away from African Americans, so that these injustices could not be rectified through the democratic process.

In recent years, we have seen several important examples of efforts to reduce the voting power of poor Americans.    Quite a number of states —  17 or more — have established voter registration laws requiring formal legal identification in order to register to vote, which are often difficult for poor people to obtain, and otherwise unnecessary for them to have. (Other restrictions have been established as well.)   The principal reason set forth is avoiding voter fraud.  The underlying reasoning has seemed to many to be an attempt by conservative legislators and state administrations to restrict the number of people who would not be inclined to vote for them, thus enabling them to carry out policies that they prefer.  Arguments and counter-arguments have been wending their way through the U.S. court system(s). The courts have begun striking down these laws in several cases.  We have just published one article on this topic  As November approaches courts deal a series of blows to voter ID laws by Camila Domonoske of NPR.  There are certainly others worth reading, including Critics see efforts by countries and towns to purge minority voters from rolls by Michael Wines in the New York Times.

“The majority-white Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration was systematically questioning the registrations of more than 180 black Sparta citizens — a fifth of the city’s registered voters — by dispatching deputies with summonses commanding them to appear in person to prove their residence or lose their voting rights….The board’s aim, a lawsuit later claimed, was to give an edge to white candidates in Sparta’s municipal elections — and that November, a white mayoral candidate won a narrow victory.

 

President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965 Photo: President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. Photo: Yoichi Okamoto/Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965 Photo: Yoichi Okamoto/Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

While requirements that end up restricting the right to vote are by no means the only reason very poor people have suffered economically in recent years,  they are one, especially when politics is involved in the allocation of  funds.

TANF (temporary assistance to needy families), which replaced Aid to Dependent Children is an example.   Motivated by a desire to get the very poorest families with children off ‘welfare’ as it was called,  the reform set strict time limits on receiving welfare in exchange for job training.  This did not succeed, due to being overwhelmed by economic circumstances, such as recessions causing high unemployment, and also the difficult and disadvantaged situation facing poor people with children (not near jobs, poor transportation, often single, unaffordable child care).

Rather than redo this policy to correct its defects, what happened was the opposite: the national TANF caseload has declined by over 60 percent over the last 18 years, even as poverty and deep poverty (i.e., income below half the poverty line) have worsened; and the funding for TANF has declined by one-third in real terms. (See Policy Basics: an Introduction to TANF, by the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities, especially the section How Has TANF Performed.) Conservative legislatures have opposed attempts to address these problems.

Does reducing the ability of poor people to vote work to increase poverty and hunger?  We believe so, urge our readers to consider if this is true, and if they think so, what action they might/should take to oppose this trend.

Lane Vanderslice is the editor of Hunger Notes

For further investigation:

ProPublica has a good summary of voter registration laws.

The first half of Chapter 10 of  The Empire of Cotton, a wonderful book on the economic and political history of cotton, details how state and local laws (including vagrancy and voter registration laws) and their enforcement were used to keep poor African-Americans on the farm, producing cotton.  (The second half gives a good description of how this was done in other countries as well. )

Many discussions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including Wikipedia’s, give an idea of how important voting rights were both for segregationists and African Americans in maintaining or beginning to reduce discrimination .

Our fact sheet Harmful economic systems as a cause of hunger and poverty describes how barriers to entry fit into the larger system of using political-economic structures to distribute income.

A Google news search on voter id laws will give further news stories on the topic.

See the original at http://www.worldhunger.org/opinions/maintaining-poverty-voter-registration-laws/