The right to vote is an illusion for me: I have been allowed to vote only once in my more than two decades as an emancipated adult. But while I have never been completely at peace with this disenfranchisement, it is the consequence of my personal choice to migrate early and often: my home country, Denmark, extends only limited democratic rights for citizens living abroad.
It is, however, not a choice for the millions of U.S. citizens who will not be allowed to vote in the upcoming presidential election, either because they have been convicted of a felony, or because they are excluded from voting through voting roll purges, strict voter ID laws, or existing or new restrictions on when and how eligible citizens are allowed to vote.
These restrictions on who is allowed to vote and how are based on two erroneous assumptions.
The first and most easily dismissed assumption is that voter fraud is rampant in the United States, requiring stricter regulations on new voter registration, voter ID requirements, and limits on voting hours. This notion is so obviously false that it has been debunked numerous times by independent watchdog organizations and in the mainstream media. Latest figures show that about one in 16,000 registered voters might have a problem, though some issues are neither intentional nor malicious but rather the result of people moving, changing their signature, or misspelling the name of the city in which they live.
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Unfortunately, widespread voter fraud is a notion that has traction with those who already believe the United States consists of the deserving and the undeserving. In this way, some commentators conflate welfare recipients, urban residents, and individuals likely to engage in voter fraud. More damningly, non-governmental groups ostensibly working to verify voter registers across the country have seemingly been targeting counties with predominantly minority populations, or low-income communities, using methods that have been discredited by government agencies, such as the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. Just this weekend, the New York Times reported that some are so focused on proving fraud that they fabricate the proof. As a result, hundreds of legitimate voters have been purged from registers.
These efforts are usually partisan. The ongoing case in Ohio, in which the state government is seeking to strike down early voting in selected districts and for selected populations, has the possibility of preventing more registered Democrats than Republicans from accessing polls on non-work days.
The second assumption behind the exclusion of voters in the United States is that voting is a privilege and not a human right. International human rights treaties define the equal right and opportunity to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections as key to democracy, peace, and human dignity. And while the United States is historically reluctant to sign on to international human rights obligations, the U.S. Senate accepted the ongoing obligation to implement the right to vote as defined in international law in 1992.
To be sure, some will say that the millions of convicted felons who are excluded from voting for life have brought it upon themselves and do not deserve to participate in democracy. No amount of data showing the disproportionate (and perhaps intentional) impact of this policy on communities of color will convince this group that those convicted of crimes should not be excluded from voting. The notion that voting as a human right means there can be no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving will also not have any impact: people who believe that those convicted of felonies should lose all rights for life do not believe in human rights at all.
So far, politicians have assumed they have support for voter ID laws because some three-quarters of the U.S. population poll in favor of these laws. However, the same polls show an almost equal concern among the population that legitimate voters will be excluded from the polls in November. The difference between these two concerns is that the latter is real and the former is largely fabricated, as is the worry that those convicted of felonies are undeserving of the right to vote.
More to the point, ensuring the right to vote should not be based on polling data. The U.S. government—including both the executive and the legislative branches—has the obligation to ensure that the right to vote is more than an illusion for all U.S. citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, home, or history of conflict with the law.