Wednesday, October 7, 2009

98% and 'universal' - spot the difference

Back to the USA, and Right Wing News expresses a kind of faux bemusement that the "ultra-left" (ie. vaguely to the left of Enoch Powell) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People should be spearheading a drive to encourage prisoners in Maine to register to vote. The 'controversy' here is that inmates are disproportionately likely to back the Democrats. The only difficulty with this complaint is that Maine is one of the two states where prisoners are perfectly entitled to vote, and the Democrats would in fact therefore be left at an unfair disadvantage if there was not an attempt to galvanise all potential voters.

Of course the US is not the only place in the world where allowing criminals the right to vote is highly controversial - Europe is split on the issue, and the UK is one of many countries which retains a legal bar. But the difference is a matter of scale. Even in the UK, which jails more people per head of population than other country in western Europe, less than 0.2% of the voting age population is debarred due to a term of imprisonment. In the US, the figure is an astonishing 2%, due to a blend of a higher crime rate, a much more draconian legal system, and perhaps most significantly of all, the fact that in a great many states felons remain debarred from voting even after they are released. So let's turn the Right Wing News point about the likely political inclinations of the people concerned on its head. Is it entirely a coincidence that in the most Republican of states, draconian criminal justice legislation just happens to be artifically suppressing the potential Democrat vote to a mind-boggling degree? When you consider that well over one in ten African American men in the US are legally barred from voting, it seems that the bad old ways of 'poll taxes' and 'literacy tests' to ensure indirect disenfranchisement of black people are still around - just in an invidious new form, one that is much harder for civil rights groups to successfully campaign against.

And yet campaign they must. Apart from anything else, can a country that currently only permits 98% of its adult population to vote actually be deemed to have maintained 'universal suffrage'? The USA - a beacon of democracy for the rest of the world, or not even a democracy at all?

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