Yesterday was National Voter Education and Registration Day and many non-profit organizations reached out making sure their target audience knew how to register and how to protect and use the right to vote. This is a big deal especially among communities of color in states like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina and Pennsylvania where voter laws put up new barriers to access. According to a study released on Monday by the Advancement Project, 23 states actually have or are considering legislation to mandate voter IDs, toughen voter restrictions, or purge non-citizens from voter rolls. The report says that these proposals especially impact the Latino community.
But often left out in this push back against voter suppression are large numbers of people who live in so called “safe” states, states considered almost a certain win for the Democratic party. It’s why you don’t see a heck of a lot of campaigning in California and New York but you will see these states being used as sources of needed campaign cash. Just last weekend Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was fundraising in San Diego and Los Angeles and is said to have raised millions despite polling in the double digits behind President Barack Obama in the Golden State. While the average Southern California resident doesn’t have millions, what the region does have is “occasional voters.”
Last month at a music festival organized to engage civic participation, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and CEO of Community Coalition, a South Los Angeles nonprofit social justice organization, defined the occasional voter as someone who is young and generally votes in the big election, like the 2008 presidential election, because of its historic nature. More than four in ten voters in California are new or occasional voters, and most of them are Latino or African American. While California governor Jerry Brown recently signed same day voter registration into law, that law will have no impact on this year’s election nor will it help draw those occasional voters in California where there are important ballot initiatives. Proposition 34 would end California’s death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Proposition 36 would reform the “three strikes” law, reserving life sentences for only when the third felony conviction is serious or violent.
Even if these propositions were to pass, attempting to slightly reform the criminal justice in the Golden State, they do nothing to give those inside prison walls a voice or a vote. In California, felony inmates and those on parole are denied the franchise representing approximately 278,477 votes. According to a 2010 report by the Sentencing Project (PDF), there are an estimated 5.85 million disenfranchised felons across correctional populations nationwide. This especially impacts people of color. Blacks make up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population but represent 37.9 percent of those in federal and state prisons according to the Census and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, putting them at greater risk for disenfranchisement.
Immigrants bear the brunt of scapegoating from the right wing fanning voter fraud fears even though there is no evidence of this being true and there are large scale efforts across the country working on new citizen civic participation. These efforts though fails to address voice of the millions of non-citizen immigrants who study, work, and live in the United States. For example, while Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals promises a very small percentage a temporary reprieve from deportation and a possible work permit, it offers no status and certainly no vote.
What does it say for the state of our democracy when millions of votes are actively sought and other millions are seemingly left in the cold with no one advocating for their participation? What does it say about the value of the vote on its own and as a tool in participatory politics? November 6 is fast approaching with so much work to be done before and beyond.