The Right to Vote Affects the Power to Choose: How Voter Suppression in 2012 Will Erode Reproductive Rights


The Roberts court declared section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional on June 25, 2013, allowing states to enact voter ID laws.

There is power in a woman’s right to vote.

Since 1984, women have been the majority of the total vote in every presidential election. This year, millions of women will stand in line and prepare themselves to decide who will serve in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress. They will decide who sits on the local school board and who becomes the next President of the United States. They will also decide who shapes the future of reproductive health and rights for all women in this country. The power to preserve and expand reproductive rights is inextricably tied the right to vote.

But what is power if your ability to leverage that power is stripped away?

That’s just what Republican-led state legislatures across the country are poised to do. Since 2010 state legislatures with Republican majorities have introduced and passed restrictive laws with the potential — and many argue the intent — of forcing widespread voter suppression, and to disenfranchise women, people of color, students, the elderly, and low-income communities.

The overall strategy has included efforts to:

  • Pass laws that require voters to produce proof of citizenship;
  • Make the voter registration process more difficult by eliminating Election Day registration and creating new restrictions on voter registration drives;
  • Cut early and absentee voting periods;
  • Make the restoration of voting rights more difficult;
  • Require eligible voters to possess current and valid state issued photo ID

 Brennan Center for Justice.

These voter suppression tactics are not new, our nation has faced this type of encroachment before. During the civil rights movement African-Americans, women, students, and allies all fought together to gain access to the vote for all citizens. Now, Republican-led state legislatures across the nation are working to roll back hard-earned progress.

What happens if this strategy succeeds?

According a Brennan Center for Justice study, approximately one in ten, or 21 million, Americans do not currently possess valid and current government-issued photo ID. Many of those voters are women whose last names changed with marriages.

The same study found that since the beginning of 2011, at least 180 bills restricting voting rights were introduced in 41 states. Due to this well-funded and well-organized GOP-led effort, 16 states succeeded in passing restrictive voting laws. These states account for 214 electoral votes, or nearly 79 percent of the total needed to win the presidency. If these restrictions are enacted, an estimated 5 million eligible voters could be turned away from the polls in 2012.

Republican state legislators are not pushing this agenda alone. A corporate-funded conservative group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — whose membership includes legislators and major corporations — created model voter ID legislation. Then, legislators and corporations worked together to introduce and push the model voter ID legislation in several states under the guise of preventing voting fraud.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “proponents of such voter suppression legislation have failed to show that voter fraud is a problem anywhere in the country.” Right-wing politicians and groups including ALEC are leveraging the right to vote against a problem that doesn’t exist.

 Brennan Center for Justice.

What’s happening in states?

Florida has a long history of disenfranchising its eligible voters. Florida Governor Rick Scott’s attempt to purge more than 180,000 Floridians from voter rolls just before a key election is a prime example the GOP’s effort to disrupt the voting process and disenfranchise eligible voters. In the 2000 presidential election, thousands of ballots from African American voters were rejected and tossed out. George Bush’s victory was hinged upon the decision of Florida election officials, he won by just 573 votes. Every single vote counts.

Some Republican officials are transparent about the intent behind their efforts to rig the 2012 elections. Last month, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) openly stated that voter ID “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”  As a result of Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law, over 758,000 eligible voters now face disenfranchisement because they lack an acceptable form of ID. Over 186,000 of these voters live in the urban center of Philadelphia — home to nearly half of all African Americans in Pennsylvania.

In Mississippi the photo ID referendum has proved to be especially cumbersome. In order to obtain the required photo ID, voters have to have a birth certificate. To obtain a birth certificate, voters most have a state photo ID. See where this gets sticky?

The Texas voter ID law will accept gun licenses — but not student IDs — as proof of identification in lieu of a photo ID. Fortunately, like Mississippi, Texas is required to undergo federal review for any changes to its voting laws due to a history of discriminatory practices.

There are several factors that contribute to a person not having a current and valid photo ID. They expire. Some voters live in areas where driving is not necessary, therefore a state-issued drivers license is not necessary. Voters move and are unable to obtain new ID prior to registration or election day. College students who live away from home and only possess a student ID are also at risk of being turned away for the polls in some states.

The latest available figures show that only 48 percent of voting-age women with ready access to their U.S. birth certificates have a birth certificate with their current legal name. The same survey showed that only 66 percent of voting-age women with ready access to any proof of citizenship have a document with their current legal name.

Ultimately, these measures make the voting process more confusing and place additional burdens on groups who each had to struggle to obtain the right to vote and the right to access quality & affordable reproductive health care.

What are leaders in the movement saying?

“If you can’t access the ballot box, how do you ensure access to reproductive health care?” — Aimee Thorne-Thompson, Advocates for Youth

For reproductive justice advocates, voter suppression is a reproductive justice issue. Many groups like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights (RCRC) and NYC Reproductive Justice Coalition (NYC RJC, formerly SisterSong NYC) and Advocates for Youth work year-around to educate communities on the issues and mobilize them to vote for progressive candidates and ballot measures.

Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Justice Director at RCRC, Angela Ferrell-Zabala says voter suppression has the potential to affect down ballot measures and local races in states like Florida.

“Down ballot issues like Amendment 6 will open the state’s constitutional privacy laws and make it very difficult for women to seek abortion care’’ Ferrell-Zabala states.

If Amendment 6 is passed, politicians will be allowed to intrude on personal medical decisions and take away access to healthcare that many women who are Florida public employees currently have.

There is much at stake and “we have to look at the repercussions, it all leads back to reproductive justice. Accessing healthcare and education — making informed decisions about your sexual health and family planning.” Ferrell-Zabala explains.

This is about agency and the power to transform communities.

“To limit the agency of women and youth who are disenfranchised by the social conditions of our race, gender, age and socio-economic status is unacceptable at best, and a direct violation of our human rights at its worst.” says Jasmine Burnett, NYC RJC lead organizer.

Gloria Feldt, author and past president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America argues that “the young, the poor, the women struggling to make ends meet for their families are most vulnerable to disenfranchisement yet have the most to lose if right-wing perpetrators of voter suppression succeed.”

The power of the women’s vote can only be effectively leveraged if every woman who is eligible to vote is able to enter the voting booth and have her vote counted. If they are not counted in 2012 then, “reproductive rights, health, and justice would be among the first freedoms to go, and economic justice not far behind.” said Feldt.

The implementation of voter ID laws and other restrictive measures have the potential to shape whose votes are cast and counted in this year’s presidential election, but we must think long-term. What happens after the next presidential inauguration takes place on the steps of the U.S. Capitol?

Local races will occur where the individuals on the ballot stand to gain the power to decide what happens in women’s lives. They will have the power to decide what health centers receive funding, or whether the personhood of a woman is valued over the interests of a fertilitized egg… laws passed by elected officials who will never be in the position to choose. More often than not, these decisions affect women of color and women with low-incomes the most.

“The reproductive health, rights and justice movement must work with organizations doing voter education and civic engagement work to defeat these bills and ballot measures. Otherwise, all of our other rights are at risk.” says Thorne-Thompson.

As America’s democracy grows older and its citizenry becomes more diverse, our elected officials should focus on reducing barriers to voting and developing a more modern voting process. We must create a more streamlined and effective registration process and improve our use of technology in the voting process in order to realize full voter-participation. The power of the vote depends on this and our democracy is dramatically weakened — indeed completely undermined — without it.

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