What happens when every vote counts, but not every vote is counted?
National elections theoretically involve every American, but in practice there is a chasm between those who can elect their leaders and those that do. The Iowa caucus is meant to be the archetype of grassroots democracy, but instead exemplifies American electoral politics’ problems with accessibility and enfranchisement. I spent January working as an Organizing Fellow with the Bernie Sanders campaign in Iowa City; recruiting volunteers, helping with workshops and events, and creating canvassing and phone-banking lists. On my way back to Iowa City from a staging location in rural Iowa, I and a few volunteers stopped by a gas station to get a protein bar and water before the big night. As we checked out, I asked the cashier if she would be caucusing, Bernie sticker above my heart.
She said, “No.”
“Why not?” I asked, ready to deliver a seasoned pitch about civic engagement peppered with romanticized notions of grassroots democracy, with notes on Iowa’s importance in the election cycle, with the guilt bomb of people who died so that we could vote (just in case the rest didn’t work).
She laughed. “I’m working.”
Of course. She was literally in front of me, scanning my protein bar. Working. But whether because of nerves or idealism, I didn’t see her.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is a private organization that runs the Democratic primary to select their candidate for President. Since they aren’t an arm of the government, there’s no legal ground for people prevented from voting, or caucusing, in the primaries due to work or other circumstances. They aren’t technically being denied their right to vote; just their right to participate in a private organization’s selection process for a representative.
On the drive back, I reflected on stories I heard while canvassing and phonebanking similar to the cashier’s. By far the most common reason people weren’t caucusing who supported Bernie was because they had to work that Monday evening. I remembered the woman who was afraid she wouldn’t be able to keep up with her duties as a precinct captain because she was taking care of a new baby. I thought about the wheelchair-bound caucus-goer that had called into our office asking if their caucus location was accessible.
“I’m sure it is, but I’ll call in and ask.”
I called the high school at which he was caucusing later that week. They informed me that, yes, there is a ramp, but it’s incredibly steep. It’s too steep even for the average person to push up a wheelchair. Instead, there is a connected building with a hallway that leads to the main building, which leads to another hallway, which leads to the elevator that could take a handicapped person to the gymnasium, the caucus site.
“OK, thank you. I’m glad I called.”
That caucuser had to face a literal steep ramp, optimistic in its presence but crushingly insurmountable. Other caucusers faced similar obstacles, from childcare, to disabilities, to work, to a reliance on public transportation that didn’t pass by their caucus site, to a language barrier that prevented us from being able to pass along information about their caucus location. All of these might theoretically have solutions. One could ask their boss to take time off. Organize a carpool. Act as a translator for their community. This addresses the symptoms while ignoring the causes. The problem with barriers to accessing rights, like participation in government, isn’t that they are difficult to overcome, but that they exist in the first place.
At the caucus site I worked, I saw hundreds of caucusers, mostly students. There were many more eligible to participate that weren’t there. These are people whose policy needs are not discussed in debates because they are unlikely demographics to vote; whose accessibility needs were not met because American society values efficiency over fairness. These are the people we don’t see at the caucus. What does it mean when the people already most disadvantaged are the least able to access government as an avenue towards change? I don’t personally believe electoral politics are the best way to achieve social change, but the results of these elections have massive material impacts. We can also look to elections as cautionary tales to see how we can make our spaces, events, and selves more accessible.
Including people who are ordinarily disenfranchised creates better advocacy. Politicians are more likely to place issues affecting these groups on the national agenda when there are votes at stake. For example, Obama energized young people to vote for him in large numbers, which was one of the ways he secured his elections. As a result, Clinton and Sanders are now both spending significant time holding rallies at colleges, campaigning with millennial celebrities, and bringing up policy proposals targeting young people specifically, on topics like student loans and childcare, in order to pander to this actively engaged demographic.
A fault in this example is that young people, as a class, face few barriers to voting besides disinterest. For a more appropriate historical example, we can look to the Voting Rights Act(VRA), passed in 1965 to prevent racial discrimination in voting laws, then amended five times to expand its protections. Section 5 made it so that states with a history of voter disenfranchisement had to have any new voting laws approved by the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for D.C. Three researchers at the London School of Economics found that the number of cities covered by Section 5 with at least one African-American city council member increased by 82 percent between 1981 and 2001.
Then, why are efforts to disenfranchise voters continuing in the United States? Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was rendered obsolete by the Supreme Court in June 2013, allowing states free reign to create suppressive, unapproved voting laws, with voters’ only recourse being expensive and time-consuming litigation. After North Carolina passed a voter ID law in 2013 that required a state ID (as opposed to a public employee ID, a student ID from a state university, or personal identification like a social security number) to vote, they disenfranchised over 300,000 people, disproportionately African-Americans. This enormous number is the State Board of Elections’ own count from an ID analysis report in April 2013. The gap between who can and does have a State ID is due to the time, money, and logistic information needed to attain one. Civil rights advocates lobbied and led protests for years in order to have this law changed in the summer of 2015 to include the option of signing an affidavit and presenting a social security number. However, Georgia, Wisconsin, and seven other states have retained similar State ID laws.
Pre-1965, poll taxes and literacy tests were used to bar African-Americans from voting. Although they are more enfranchised today due to the VRA, over five million people are barred from voting in U.S. elections due to state laws against felons voting. With the prison industrial complex disproportionately targeting Black people, and the low bar for earning a felony in the United States (felony examples include smoking marijuana, theft, and driving while intoxicated), these laws act as a rehashed version of old Jim Crow laws that aimed to disenfranchise Black voters, taking on Indigenous, Latino, and Arab communities as additional targets.
But what about the wheelchair ramp that was built with good intentions, but too steep? Caucus sites inaccessible by public transportation? The DNC not having the legal authority to allow employees to take a day off? The barriers to voting in 2016 often seem more accidental than malicious.
Regardless of intent or improvement relative to the past, more needs to be done to take into account the barriers to access that people face in organizing for change, electoral or otherwise. Out of all the workshops and rallies I attended in January, only the Bernie Sanders rally at the University of Iowa had an ASL interpreter. I’ve seen interpreters in very few other activist spaces, and meetings and lectures are often held in places like private universities that aren’t easily accessible by public transportation. Inclusion isn’t something that can happen passively, organizers need to actively reach out to people they are not including in their work. Our office in Iowa created carpool lists to organize trips to the caucus sites. Volunteers with Spanish skills were given phonebanking lists of other Spanish speakers to maximize the caucusers we were able to reach. A list was kept of people who needed childcare, which we regretfully did not end up organizing successfully. That could have made all the difference in a race that was decided by .3% of the vote. Only by looking at past organizing mistakes like this can we build more inclusive, more effective movements in the future.
By: Jake Villarreal ’16