America Lacks an Equal, Representative Voting System

Oct 19, 2020 | Politics, Race & Ethnicity


As we enter the final weeks before the presidential election, many Americans are concerned about something that should be so simple: voting. Particularly in this election, with an enormous amount of mail-in and early in-person voting, many are asking, “How should I vote?” and “Will my vote be counted?” Voting and voter turnout are a peculiar problem to have in a modern political system, but in America, disenfranchisement, whether direct or indirect, is systemic and ongoing. 

America was built on an unequal system of voting, beginning with the sole enfranchisement of white adult men owning some property. Despite the nation fighting a revolutionary war for representation in government decisions and taxation, among other grievances, the very voting system put in place wasn’t meant to enfranchise all for government decisions. Women, Black people, Indigenous people, poor white men, were all left out of the voting system, intentionally. 

As time passed, voting rights, on paper, became more equitable. The 15th amendment gave Black men the formal right to vote in 1870; however, substantial limitations were imposed immediately afterwards in many Southern states, such as the Grandfather Clause, which denied Black men the right to vote unless their grandfather had voted in elections before 1867. With a system of enslavement in place until 1865, this disqualified virtually all in some regions. Other disenfranchising forces included poll taxes and literacy tests, disproportionately targeting Black men or poor white men. Until the mid-20th century, Black people in America would not be fully enfranchised due to these Jim-Crow era restrictions. The 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, enfranchised women after nearly a century of formal conventions pressing Congress to act on voting rights. Finally, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the Jim-crow era restrictions and helped register voters in areas with rampant discrimination. However, with this lengthy, incremental timeline of expanding voter rights in America—from the beginning of our nation to present, is voting equitable in 2020? Should we be concerned about the institutional legacy of purposeful voting discrimination?

There are numerous mechanisms today that on the surface level seem fair but are rooted in other sectors of the nation’s history of inequality. From felony disenfranchisement to gerrymandering, voter registration deadlines, and voter ID laws; these currently justified systems are suppressing everyone’s right to vote. So, when people simply say, “Get out and vote, it’s your duty,” we must consider that it is simply not possible for so many to vote due to rampant voter suppression across a variety of walks of life. While many are concerned with the outcome of this election, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, and the ills of racism vehemently plaguing this nation, America can barely be represented in the polls due to a lack of accessibility.   

In a time where COVID-19 has made voting in-person more difficult, we have seen an extraordinary increase in mail-in voting, but numerous state efforts to hinder this effort. Voters in Pennsylvania have their mail-in ballots discarded for failing to put their completed ballot in an additional “secrecy” envelope. Voters in Texas recently have had their ballot drop-off boxes limited to one per county by Governor Abbott. Initially challenged in court and blocked by a judge, it received a recent federal judge appeal to uphold the limitation, showing that the suppression extends beyond state governments and into the offices of federal judges.  

Not only this but non-voters fail to participate at all because they feel too busy, that their vote doesn’t matter, or simply the candidates fail to grasp their attention. And when there are long voter lines (like those in 2016 that primarily impacted neighborhoods of color), how can we expect there to be a full turnout? Based on early voting thus far, we’re likely to see a repetition of long lines in polling places, made all the more likely due to indoor capacity limitations for mitigating COVID-19.  

These numerous, institutional discriminatory practices lead to several negative outcomes. Voter turnout across the nation is low, even in presidential elections. Only around 56 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2016 general election, a metric that has held stable throughout the past several elections. Can we say that our election outcomes are truly representative of the ideas of our nation when there are around 44 percent of eligible voters not participating? Campaigns are so focused on “likely voters” and “swing voters,” rather than on expanding the equity of access to voting for all, which could help target the untapped 44% of non-voters, apathetic voters, or those who simply are unable to vote due to the disenfranchising conditions. We should be ashamed that our voting system is substantially lower than in other comparable democratic nations: This is a profoundly American phenomenon.

We should not turn to rhetoric, partisanship, or misinformation campaigns when advocates call to tear down the barriers of voter suppression. This should be welcomed with open arms. Though “voter fraud” is often shouted as an argument against greater voting accessibility, studies show voter fraud rates are low, even with more vulnerable mail-in ballots. If increased accessibility and equity to voting are a partisan concern, perhaps the partisans should aim for greater policy-attraction with enfranchised voters than attempt to disenfranchise dissidents. 

As the deadlines for requesting mail-in ballots and voting early pass and the infamous November 3rd draws near, remember what it means to vote in America. Voting is currently an unjust, non-representative, systemic problem in this nation. Be cautious when telling people to “Go out and vote, it only takes a few minutes,” because when ballot drop-off boxes are limited, when one small error gets a ballot thrown out, and when there are substantial lines during a pandemic—voting is not easy. It’s another system for the privileged. Encourage people to vote, but understand that it is often difficult or impossible for many communities across the nation. If you can, volunteer at a polling location and contact your friends to verify voter registration and voting plans, to help ensure that as many people as possible can vote safely on or before November 3rd

Featured Image: Carlos Bernate, New York Times.


  • Sam Murray

    Sam Murray is currently working as a pathways intern for the FDA and is a second-year Master of Political Science student. He served as a Columnist at the Public Purpose Journal last year and is continuing through the 2021-2022 academic year. His research and interest areas are primarily on energy and the environment, policing, and labor policy reforms. When taking a break from work and writing, he enjoys hiking, running, rock climbing, and snowboarding.

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