We’re a long way from real democracy

by Cole Krawitz and Jay Toole New York Newsday editorial, August 25, 2006

Bad laws and manipulation still keep many people, especially poor and minority, out of the voting booth

As we celebrate the 86-year anniversary of the battle for women’s suffrage and passage of the 19th Amendment tomorrow, the call for a genuine and just democracy remains ever-present in today’s political landscape. The United States has a long history of de jure and de facto disenfranchisement that continues to erode our democracy.

From gerrymandered redistricting and antiquated voting machines, to purging and suppression of voters through state-regulated photo IDs, historically disfranchised communities continue to experience the erosion of their political power, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color.

Today, more than 23 million adult Americans live in poverty. According to the U.S. Census, in 2004 only 59 percent of citizens in households earning less than $15,000 per year were registered to vote, compared with 85 percent in households earning more than $75,000. Low-income people face several challenges to registering and voting, including less flexible jobs and transportation problems, plus a lack of stable housing, photo identification and user-friendly information on candidates and voting procedures.

In 2004, more than 550 affordable-housing groups across the country registered and mobilized thousands of underrepresented people. We were a part of that effort, registering and mobilizing homeless people in New York City who were unaware of their right to vote. In 1994, homeless people in New York State residing in shelters, hotels or on the street won the right to vote in the case known as Pitts v. Black.

Nearly one of every 20 New York City residents has utilized the shelter system. About 90 percent of homeless New Yorkers are black or Latino – even though 53 percent of New York City’s total population is black or Latino.

In speaking with and registering hundreds of homeless people, we were told many stories of their being turned away at the polls because they lived in shelters. Others voiced valid frustrations at not being able to vote in the districts where they had lived all their lives and where they planned on returning once they left temporary housing. Time and time again, we encountered people who still believed they could not vote because they had served time, even though they had not been in prison or on parole for many years – some for more than 20 years. Only those convicted of felonies and currently incarcerated or on parole lose the right to vote.

Quickly, our work was inextricably linked to the fight to restore citizens to voter rolls and the impact of large-scale incarceration due to drug convictions. New York’s 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws, mandating harsh prison terms and incarcerating people (many of whom had no prior records) for low-level, nonviolent offenses, rather than utilizing drug treatment programs, have devastated communities. More than 92 percent of all those convicted under these state laws are people of color, most of whom come from New York City. The collateral consequences are many – one of which is loss of the right to vote.

Meanwhile, federal “one-strike” legislation that can keep former inmates with felony drug convictions from returning to publicly subsidized housing, and places barriers on obtaining licenses and employment, has created a cyclical and compounding impact on communities of color and low-income communities in New York. The state releases almost 30,000 prisoners each year. Most people on parole return to their home communities – a large number to Harlem, the South Bronx, central Brooklyn and Jamaica, neighborhoods that also have the most families who reside in the city’s homeless shelters.

Felon disenfranchisement laws in New York State not only dilute the political and economic power of communities of color, they also add to the political clout of upstate, largely white, communities. An organization called the Prison Policy Initiative documented how, in its redistricting process, the New York State Legislature utilized U.S. Census numbers, counting urban prisoners incarcerated in rural prisons as rural residents, creating a phantom population with no representation. In New York, only 24 percent of prisoners are from upstate, while 91 percent of prisoners are incarcerated there. This practice not only reduces the electoral power and representation of urban communities, which are the most negatively affected by incarceration policies; it boosts the political power of rural communities benefiting from the growth of the prison industry.

The celebrations and memories of historic victories such as women’s suffrage and the Voting Rights Act are critical today as we continue to work for a genuine democracy that represents and speaks for all people, including those who have been left out of the debate for centuries. What we call for is a day where we find ourselves celebrating not a patchwork of policies piecing together a broken system, but a re-imagining, a visionary call of a people’s democracy.

Cole Krawitz is a communications and events associate with Demos. Jay Toole is a shelter organizer for Queers for Economic Justice.

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