Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 5.25.10 PM

The Rape Kit Backlog

The Rape Kit Backlog

Why Most Assault Cases Never See The Inside Of A Courtroom

WHAT YOU CAN DO...

By Alexandra Bixler

        One in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.[1] While this is a harrowing statistic, rape remains the most underreported crime with 63 percent of incidents failing to reach law enforcement. This percentage is abysmally low and often representative of survivor’s fears, whether it be retaliation, losing employment or social ostracization. Unfortunately, the news often propagates these fears through its characterization of victims.  Justice Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, received death threats against her family that impeded her ability to return to work. Rapper R. Kelly is facing legal ramifactions for accusations of child sexual abuse and sexual assault only after the documentary Surviving R Kelly detailed over 30 years of ignored accusations from young, low-income black women. Of the past five U.S. presidents, three have been accused of sexual misconduct (George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump). Sadly, a large majority of these men resumed their careers practically unscathed.

        While external factors such as societal retaliation or indifference contribute to an unwillingness to report assaults, the legal process itself is inefficient and problematic for survivors. Rape kits are important in gathering forensic evidence for sexual assault cases as they collect identifying information on the perpetrator. However, these vital pieces of evidence are often ignored; in Jackson, Mississippi, the Jackson Police Department (JPD) has a backlog of 600 rape kits, with some being up to 10 years old. While some of these victims decided not to pursue charges, the JPD is still mandated to evaluate the evidence and determine whether to pursue prosecution to prevent further attacks from occurring. This is especially relevant in child sexual abuse cases, as Missippi holds no statue of limitations thereby allowing evidence to be used at practically any time.

        This troubling phenomenon is not specific to Mississippi; the United States has over 100,000 backlogged rape kits[2] and the average wait time for a rape kit to be tested in Washington is 14 months.[3]

        The testing of rape kits sends a very clear message to victims: “you matter and your case matters,” just as a rape kit’s neglect sends the opposite message.

        Hania Noelia Aguilar, a 13-year-old girl from North Carolina, was a victim of this indifference after she was kidnapped, raped and murdered in December 2018. Aguilar’s perpetrator, Michael Ray McLellan, committed another assault in 2016. However, the rape kit that implicated him was never investigated and thereby never made it to court. When asked about the incident, the Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said:

        “I don't know what happened, if it got lost at the sheriff's department, if it got buried on somebody's desk, if it got placed in records division there and just vanished...In all likelihood, had this gone forward and we established a case against him at that time, Hania would not have died. And for that, I can't tell you how much that hurts, I can't tell you how sorry I am."

        The rape kit backlog exists for a variety of reasons. Sex crime units are commonly understaffed, often resulting in departments failing to prioritize these cases.[4] Unfortunately, inherent biases also exist against sexual assault victims, resulting in victims often being blamed or not believed. Research shows that officers suspect sex crime victims of lying more than victims of other crimes despite no evidence of such a variation. Many of these issues stem from a lack of trauma training, causing officers to disregard a victim’s credible account because of a lack of knowledge about the impact of trauma.

        In fact, James Hopper, Ph.D, an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, wrote a piece on the impact of trauma on memory loss. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions like attention, thought processes, or impulses. The prefrontal cortex is severely inhibited in traumatic situations, which makes disorientation and memory gaps common. At some point in a very traumatic event the amygdala “takes over,” causing the brain to hyperfocus on irrelevant details like a facial expression or the designs on the ceiling. Additionally, the hippocampus can also impair a survivor’s ability to recall events in a proper sequential order.[5]  This was an especially prevalent issue when Christine Blasey Ford accused Justice Kavanaugh of attempted rape. Kavanaugh supporters looked to the fact that Blasey Ford did not remember specifics of the assault as lying, when in reality large memory gaps relating to trauma are relatively normal.

        Law enforcement can also sometimes lack knowledge in how sex criminals behave. Unfortunately, sex criminals often target individuals that are powerless or less likely to have legal support, placing these demographics at a higher risk. Some of these invidiuals may be non-English speakers (especially immigrants in the agriculture industry, or in the housekeeping industry), sex workers, drug abusers or the homeless. As a result, at-risk groups that need the most support often garner the least due to societal stigmas that tend to deprioritize the testing of kits from these social demographics.[6]

        Ultimately, stigmas that persist in social spheres against victims of sexual assault are not separate from law enforcement but rather seep into their judgements. It is important for these sex crime units to be properly funded and for all assault victims to be treated with respect. Everyone is entitled to a fair and thorough investigation.

 


[1] Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S .G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 summary report. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control

[2] Vicory, Justin. “JPD Has a Backlog of 600 Sexual Abuse, Rape Kits. Here's What It Means for Victims.” The Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Clarion Ledger, 21 Mar. 2019

[3] Porter, Essex. “Lawmakers Confront Price Tag for Rape Kit Backlog.” KIRO, 26 Feb. 2019

[4] Hayes, Christal. “NYPD Ignored Understaffing in Sex-Crimes Units, Told Detectives to Ignore Cases, Probe Shows.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 27 Mar. 2018

[5] Lisak, James Hopper and David. “Why Rape and Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories.” Time, Time, 9 Dec. 2014

[6] Monahan, Jerald, et al. “Police Chief Magazine|Topics|Criminal Justice Reform|The Effect of Cultural Bias on the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Assault.” Policechiefmagazine.org

death penalty 3 yca

The Death Penalty

The Death Penalty

An Age-Old Debate Examined In A Modern Context

WHAT YOU CAN DO...

  • Donate to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty at http://www.ncadp.org/

  • Contact your state and federal representatives expressing your opposition to the death penalty by either leaving a voicemail or speaking with a criminal justice staffer

By Alexandra Bixler

        The death penalty is alive and well in the United States, as the majority of states continue to use it. However, support for the policy is waining. On February 22, 2019, Kansas’ Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee decided by a narrow 7-6 vote to not repeal the state's death penalty policy, enacted in 1994.[1] This close vote demonstrates just how divided Kansasians, a state traditionally in support of capital punishment, are on the issue, even within the samepolitical party. Former Republican Johnson County Senator, Greg Smith, believed that repealing the death penalty would be an injustice to the families of homicide victims such as his daughter, Kelsey.

“I am not here to cast judgment on the validity of another homicide survivor’s feelings,” Smith stated. “Yet, every time the Legislature decides to bring this issue up, you force every homicide survivor to relive their worst day. The pain, the grief, the shock and the horror all comes back as fresh as the day our loved one was murdered.” 

On the contrary, former Republican Rep. Steven Becker claimed, “How can we impose the absolute certainty of death when we do not require the absolute certainty of guilt?”

Becker’s ideology is adopted in most nations. The United States is one of the only 54 countries that still utilizes the death penalty, which is allowed in 30 states. The death penalty has been employed since America’s colonial years; while the practice was temporarily outlawed with the Supreme Court Case, Furman v. Georgia in 1972, which ruled that the death penalty was a violation of both the 8th and 14th amendments, it was legalized once again by Gregg v. Georgia in 1976 when the court decided it was not in violation of the amendments if the sentence was delivered at the time of the trial and the jury responsible for sentencing the individual reviewed case details. Since this ruling, 7800 people have received the death penalty and 1400 people have been executed.[2]

        Nonetheless, the use of the death penalty has growless popular in recent years, demonstrating a cultural shift in public attitudes. According to a 2010 study published by Lake Research Partners, 61% of voters said they would prefer alternative punishments, such as life in prison, to the death penalty. Delaware overturned its death penalty in 2016 followed by a quiet reversal by Vermont in 2018, adding to a trend of weaning support for the once popular opinion reached in Gregg v Georgia.

        One of the primary arguments used to defend the death penalty relies on the notion that it deters crime. This argument is inherently misleading since crime statistics suggest that no such effect exists. National crime rates from 2016-2017 by state and region demonstrate that states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without it. This is not to say that the death penalty caused more crime, but instead to argue that there is no indication that it is acting as a deterrent. The region categorized as the “south” has the smallest amount of states without the death penalty (one, Delaware) but the highest murder rate at 6.6 for every 100,000 people in comparison to the “West,” “Midwest,” and “Northeast.”[3] The “South” is not only where the death penalty is the most legal, but is also where it is used far more often. Oklahoma and Texas alone contribute more to nationwide executions than the Midwest, West, and Northeast regions.

        The death penalty not only fails to deter crime but also imposes an expensive burden on the taxpayer. Oklahoma found that the death penalty cost $700,000 more to execute, while New Mexico found that the state’s death penalty would cost it $7.2 million dollars over a span of three years.[4] Colorado found that the costs associated with the death penalty were not only financial: resolving cases with the death penalty, on average, took three times longer to solve than similar cases without it.

While the American justice system has come a long way in terms of social equality, systematic discrimination is still alive and well. This is not to say that all judges and other legal officials are actively discriminating against certain groups, but rather unintentional discrimination and biases still rampantly occur, often costing minoritites their lives. Non-hispanic blacks make up roughly 12% of the American population but have represented 34% of executed defendants, demonstrating the justice system’s systematic dehumanization and lack of sympathy for black defendants. Additionally, while only 50% of murder victims are white, this statistic hikes to 76% for cases that result in death penalty. The fact that minorities, especially when the victims of the killer are white, are disproportionately put to death illustrates the inequalities present in the current justice system that causes officials to hold different levels of sympathy for different races.

Sex is another problem facing the justice system’s application of the death penalty. Our often patriarchal justice system is more easily convinced of a female defendant's “emotionally fragile” state than it is of a man’s, demonstrating that, while women may face the brunt of misogyny, men still suffer consequences.[5] Even when the murder rate of men is accounted for, currently standing at 90% of all murders, they are still more likely to receive the death penalty than women. This, unfortunately, is an outcome of a patriarchal legal system because if one receives the death penalty is determined by “aggravating” factors, like a history of violence. Since women are far less likely than men to have a history of violence, this is one of the many reasons they are more able to avoid the death penalty. Additionally, women are more likely to kill people they know, while men are more likely to kill strangers. Killing strangers is more likely to result in the death penalty than an intimate partner, leading to sentence discrepancies.

While wrongful convictions can be undone, death is irreversible. Capital punishment is ultimately expensive to the taxpayer, does not deter crime and discriminates against both minorities and men. America must fight to end this expensive, imperfect practice and instead advocate to invest resources and time into more humane alternatives.

 


[1] Carpenter, Tim. “Kansas bill repealing death penalty evokes moral, religious, justice arguments.” The Garden City Telegram20 February 2019

[2] “Death Penalty Information Center: Facts about the death penalty.” 12 March 2019.

[3] Crime in the United States by Region, Geographical Division, and State, 2016-2017” FBI, 10 September 2018

[4] “Costs of the Death Penalty,” Costs of the Death Penalty | Death Penalty Information Center, 25 March 2019

[5] Oliver, Amanda. “The Death Penalty Has a Gender Bias” Huffington Post. 01 October 2018.

mental health article picture

Mental Health In America

Mental Health In America

The Shift From Institutionalization To Incarceration

WHAT YOU CAN DO...

By Alexandra Bixler

        The state of California granted the Smith family $2.5 million for the shooting of their son, Anthonie Smith, in July 2015. At the time of the incident, Smith was 18 years old and suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Smith was killed by law enforcement during a schizophrenic episode.

        The tragedy began at 3 A.M. when Smith’s mother, Sybil Davis, contacted law enforcement after Smith assaulted a family member in their home. When the deputies arrived, the teenager struck officers Deylan Kennedy and Sharee Anthony, fleeing the scene. A few hours later, Kennedy and Anthony caught up to Smith, shooting him nine times. The pair claimed that, prior to the shooting, Smith lunged at them and reached into his waistband for a weapon. These statements were later proven false by salvaged video footage. Sybil Davis’ lawyer, John Harris, believed the jury utlimately sided with the Smith family due to footage which depicted Sharee Anthony firing the final shot when Anthonie was already on the ground.[1]

        “They had concocted a story … that turned out to be a lie – that right before that last shot, Mr. Smith lunged at them,” Harris said. “They also lied that he was reaching into his waistband for a weapon.”[2]

 Anthonie’s fate is just one example of the many ways the mentally ill are disenfranchised by the criminal justice system. According to Ron Honberg, a Senior Policy Advisor at the National Alliance on Mental Health,“We call 911 for other medical emergencies and they bring specifically trained medical technicians, but when it’s a mental-health crisis, we send the police.”[3]

Honberg’s assessment is the reality of America’s mental health care system, often leaving  police to pick up its broken pieces. Nearly half of Americans in need of mental health care that are not currently receiving it cited cost as their largest barrier. Additionally, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are in short supply. In fact, only 44 million Americans live in areas where the prevalence of these services is considered adequate.[4] Both of these factors contribute to individuals in need being left untreated.

While these lack of resources harm the mentally ill, societal stigmas hinder their recovery as well. Stigmas that the mentally ill are “weak”, “lazy”, “attention-seeking”, or “lesser than” prevent individuals from seeking out needed treatment options. These stigmas become even more dangerous when they are adopted by medical professionals. According to the research conducted in the study Mental illness-related stigma in healthcare: barriers to access and care and evidence-based solutions, those with mental illness frequently report feeling undervalued and dismissed by the health professionals they come into contact with. The pervasiveness of this phenomenon suggests this is a systematic problem rather than a series of isolated incidents. Common themes of this mistreatment are: providing insufficient information, infantilization, excessive wait times and even being told that they will never get better. Patients who suffer from personality disorders such as borderline, antisocial, and schizotypal, often experience the most discrimination due to their perceptions as manipulative, difficult, and ultimately less-deserving of care.[5] 

Since the 1950s, the United States has led the gradual process of deinstitutionalization by favoring outpatient treatment options. As more patients were deinstitutionalized, the incarceration rate for mentally ill individuals drastically increased, demonstrating a disturbing trend of substituting adequate healthcare for imprisonment.  In the United States, people with severe mental illnesses are nearly three times more likely to be incarcerated than able to access consistent treatment.[6] Additionally, the six states with the worst access to mental health treatment (Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Florida) also have the highest incarceration rates in the nation.[7] According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 75% of females and 63% of males in local prisons have a mental health problem.[8] While institutions operating in early America received criticism for human rights abuses, deinstitutionalization did not stop the abuse of mentally ill individualsinstead transferring the abuse to another setting: prisons.

        Society’s current strategy for handling the mentally ill through the use of imprisonment is ineffective for several reasons. Firstly, inmates with backgrounds of trauma or poverty are not provided with the resources they need to improve their mental state.  Nearly 50% of mentally ill inmates report that they did not receive their medication in prison.[9] Additionally, prisons do not serve as a beneficial healing environment to the mentally ill. Inmates with mental illnesses are more likely to get in trouble for behavior they cannot control. This results in punishment, often in the form of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement deeply worsens the mental state of the mentally ill and healthy alike. Roughly 60% of inmates that experienced solitary confinement and had their cases reviewed had severe undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses. Solitary confinement is also not effective; in fact, incarcerated individuals that experienced it are 20-25% more likely to commit a violent crime upon release.[10]  Discrimination also facilitates a hostile environment within prisons for the mentally ill. Less able to adhere to social norms, mentally ill inmates are 10% more likely to be the victim of prison violence, demonstrating an inability for inmates and prison staff alike to look after and understand the needs of the mentally ill.

States have the power to enact different variants of the insanity defense, which allows defense attorneys to argue that their defendant is too mentally ill and detached from reality to understand the nature of their crimes. This defense can greatly impact the outcome of criminal cases involving a defendant suffering from a psychotic disorder. However, Kansas, Montana, Idaho and Utah do not have this defense. Disregarding and belittling mental illness as irrelevant to a criminal case is a frightening reality, especially to defendants like Andrea Yates. Yates suffers from severe postpartum psychosis and has a history of multiple suicide attempts. In June 2001, Yates entered a catatonic state with the belief that her children were possessed by the devil, proceeding to kill all five of them. Initially, the state of Texas ignored Yates’ claim to insanity. Her legal team argued that because she was extremely medicated during her trial, the jury didn’t get to see her true mental state, thus hurting their argument. However, Yates’ plea was later accepted during a retrial and she now resides at a high-security mental hospital.[11]

Texas, along with most states in America, have the M'Naghten Rule, the most antiquated of current insanity defense policies. It requires the insane to demonstrate specific evidence with proof of cognitive dysfunction. The second most common code is the Model Penal Code in 22 states, which offers a wider definition of insanity. The Model Penal Code also considers a defendant’s ability to conform to legal standards, maintain impulse control, and understand their crimes.[12] The Model Penal Code is significantly more helpful to defendants that are classified as insane, as hospitalization is considered a more viable option than it is in states under the M’Naghten Rule or states with no insanity defense at all. The Model Penal Code is typically favored by those who want to reform America’s “tough on crime” policies. “Tough on crime” is no longer resonating with voters, however; in fact, 3⁄4 of Americans believe America’s criminal justice system “needs significant improvements.” Despite this public opinion, reformers still face backlash from powerful lobbying groups that benefit from mass incarceration.[13] Recently confirmed District Attorney Rachael Rollins of Suffolk, MA claimed that she will not prosecute 15 petty offenses. The National Police Association’s website, claiming to be against “anti-police officials,” have now threatened to disbar her.[14]

As police shootings and injustices involving the mentally ill continue to escalate, many municipalities have instilled additional mental health training within their local police departments. These 40-hour CIT programs are designed to increase empathy towards the mentally ill. Officers have to take a certain amount of candy pills a day to help them understand how easy it is for someone to forget their medication. They also have to experience auditory simulations to understand what it may be like to be schizophrenic. This reminds officers that schizophrenic civilians may be ignoring what the officer is saying due to their inability to focus rather than out of insubordination. Officers also must respond to a certain amount of crisis calls from the mentally ill to better their understanding. While the effectiveness of these programs vary, Lt. Richard Cavanaugh of Montclair, New Jersey stated that when his officers received a call about a woman yelling obscenities and calling herself the Queen of the Nile, they responded to her with empathy and respect. Another woman attempted suicide, but when confronted by sympathetic police officers she willingly agreed to go to the hospital to receive medical care.[15] 

Some police forces have hired a psychiatrist to ensure that trained mental health professionals can adequately respond to mentally ill behavior. The Albuquerque Police Department’s psychiatrist works with law enforcement to medicalize and humanize citizens. These psychiatrists are also responsible for creating better care plans for at-risk individuals.[16] While employing a psychiatrist may sound expensive, as their average salary is $200,000 a year, Co-responding Police-Mental Health Programs: A Review suggests that a psychiatrist’s presence on a police force can lead to savings as hospital and jail resources are no longer being wastefully utilized. Additionally, legal protections are slowly increasing for civilian allies that want to hold law enforcement accountable. As of July 2017, 60% of Americans have permission to legally record police due to federal jurisdiction.[17]

        While progress is being made regarding the treatment of the mentally ill community, discrimination, inadequate care, and outdated laws still stand in the way of widespread change. Law enforcement reforms can limit police brutality, but allocating more funding to mental health is the most efficient way of preventing cases like Anthonie Smith’s from happening again.

 

 

 

 


[1] Rokos, Brian. “$2.5 Million Awarded to Mother of Moreno Valley Man Killed by Sheriff's Deputies.” Press Enterprise, Press Enterprise, 29 Nov. 2018

[2] ibid.

[3] Sullivan, John, et al. “Nationwide, Police Shot and Killed Nearly 1,000 People in 2017.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Jan. 2018

[4] Kliff, Sarah. “Seven Facts about America's Mental Health-Care System.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Dec. 2012

[5] Hamilton, S, et al. “Qualitative Analysis of Mental Health Service Users' Reported Experiences of Discrimination.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2016

[6] Varney, Sarah. “In U.S., There's 3 Times as Much Mental Illness in Prison than in Hospitals.” MedCity News, MedCity News, 29 Mar. 2017

[7] “Access to Mental Health Care and Incarceration.” Mental Health America, 14 Nov. 2017

[8] Glaze, Lauren E, and Doris J James. “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)

[9]Connell, Nadine M, and Jennifer M Reingle Gonzalez 2014. “Mental Health of Prisoners: Identifying Barriers to Mental Health Treatment and Medication Continuity.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2014

[10] Eilperin, Juliet. “Obama Bans Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Prisons.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Jan. 2016

[11]McLellan, Faith. “Mental Health and Justice: The Case of Andrea Yates.” The Lancet, World Report, 02, Dec. 2006.

[12] “The Insanity Defense Among the States.” Findlaw, 2018,

[13] “Overwhelming Majority of Americans Support Criminal Justice Reform.” Vera, 25 Jan. 2018

[14] Fleming, Rory, et al. “Beware of the Backlash Against Reform Prosecutors.” The Crime Report, 8 Jan. 2019

[15] Herbst, Diane. “Mental Illness and Policing: What Is Mental Health Training and Why Do Police Need It?” PsyCom.net - Mental Health Treatment Resource Since 1986, 2018

[16] Morris, Nathaniel. “Police Encounter Many People with Mental-Health Crises. Could Psychiatrists Help?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 July 2018

[17]Ford, Matt. “A Major Victory for the Right to Record Police.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 July 2017

voter fraud article yca

The Impact Of Voter Fraud Prevention Laws On Minority Communities

Democracy Defrauded

The Impact Of Voter Fraud Prevention Laws On Minority Communities

WHAT YOU CAN DO...

By Alexandra Bixler

The November 2016 election led to some troubling consequences for Crystal Mason, a mother of three from Fort Worth, Texas. After being released from prison for tax evasion, Mason went to her local polling place to cast her vote only to be told that her name was not on the list of known voters. Mason followed widely distributed advice and casted a provisional ballot, used to preliminarily record a vote when there are questions regarding the voter’s eligibility that must first be resolved. Within the fine print of the ballot were the words: “I understand that it is a felony of the 2nd degree to vote in an election for which I know I am not eligible.” Skimming over the warning, Mason had no knowledge that she was unable to vote due to her prior conviction. Now, she is facing 5 years in prison for attempting to cast her vote that was pending via provisional ballot.[1]

Voting rights activists have widely referred to these heavy-punishment laws as a fear tactic to prevent people from voting. In fact, Mason’s children were so traumatized by the ordeal that they now claim that they will never vote out of fear of prosecution. Public outcry became further emboldened  as the disproportionate impact of these laws became evident. While Terri Lynn Rote, who is white, committed voter fraud in the 2016 election when she attempted to vote for Trump twice, Crystal Mason, who is African-American, received a much heftier sentence. Rote was given 2 years of probation and a $750 fine, demonstrating one of the many ways voting laws impact racial minorities unfairly.[2]

Despite an array of equally troubling and similar stories, Voter ID laws and voter fraud prevention efforts are widely supported. Former Republican South Carolina governor Nikki Haley once  said:

“Requiring people to show a photo ID before they vote is a reasonable measure. It is not racist. If everyone was willing to stop shouting and stop trying to score race-baiting political points, we could reach common ground. I want everyone who is eligible to vote, to vote.”[3]

 This statement attempts to brand Voter ID laws as “common-sense” measures to prevent fraud. However, the issue is more complex than it appears.

Before further delving into issues faced by the modern voter, it is important to recognize where this country started. In 1776, voting was restricted to white men over the age of 21 that owned land. After the Civil War, the 15th amendment in 1870 gave the illusion that black men could vote, but this was not the reality. Black men, who were still impoverished, had to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test that would often consist of decoding complicated, nearly cryptic messages. White men, if they had to undergo any literacy test at all, would be asked to explain a simple sentence.[4]

 Legal barriers served as a significant barrier for black men, but social barriers were far more dangerous. Attempting to vote subjected black men to violence and lynchings. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress between 1882-1968, but none passed. This demonstrates the strength of the cultural idea that blacks needed to be punished for “misbehaving”.[5]  By 1920, white women would receive the right to vote with the 19th amendment but suffragettes actively excluded minority women from their activism. Four years later, Native Americans received the right to vote. All Americans could not vote until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same year the poll tax was banned. Despite these legislative achievements, blatant voter suppression still plagues our nation’s recent history. This emphasizes the importance of determining whether voter fraud prevention measures truly seek to preserve the sanctity of elections or if they are pushing Americans back.[6] 

For many it may seem difficult to believe voting laws as simple as possessing a government-issued photo ID could serve as such a challenge for voters. However, those in deep poverty are less likely to have a passport or a driver’s license, because they can’t afford a trip out of the country or a car. In fact, while 10% of Americans do not have a photo ID, this statistic spikes up to 15% for Americans that make under $35,000 a year. Shockingly, 25% of black Americans do not have a photo ID. Intentionally or unintentionally, voter ID laws hurt a very specific demographic of voters: racial minorities and low income citizens.[7] The Atlantic conducted a survey in July of 2018 asking Americans of all races about their voting experience. The study found that, while voter fraud laws are not explicitly color-focused, the outcome is. Racial minorities express having a much more difficult time voting than their white counterparts. 10-11% of minority voters were told during the 2016 election, incorrectly, that their names were not listed on voter rolls while only 5% of whites were told the same. Additionally, 15% of minority voters reporting having a difficult time finding their polling place on election day while only 5% of whites could say the same. Frighteningly, 1 out of every 10 voting hispanics reported that they were “bothered” at the polls due to anti-immigrant sentiments. This demonstrates that minority voters have to overcome both legal and social obstacles to exercise their basic right to vote, an experience white Americans do not have nearly as often.

While President Donald Trump claimed that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 election, the 2016 election has 4 documented cases of voter fraud.[8] The Brennan Center of Justice’s research has also confirmed that voter fraud is not a widespread phenomena through their study, The Truth About Voter Fraud. The study concluded that Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than attempt to impersonate someone else at the polls. If the problem of voter fraud is seemingly so obsolete, it brings the question of what the purpose of strict voting laws truly are.

Democrats can rejoice in the fact that they took back the House in the 2018 midterms, but that is not to say that these restrictive laws did not play a role in hindering their success. In 2018, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp was unseated by Republican Kevin Cramer. She won her 2012 election narrowly, by a margin of 3000 votes. Native Americans were a great help to her in this race. After this victory, the Republican North Dakota state legislature took action. By 2017, House Bill 1369 was passed, which required voters to provide residential addresses on their registration forms. Unfortunately Native Americans in reservations do not have addresses or even street names, often relying on P.O boxes instead.  Republicans have claimed that their intent with HB 1369 was to prevent out-of-state voters from committing fraud rather than intentionally disenfranchise voters. However, according to Federal Judge Daniel Hovland voter fraud in the state is “virtually nonexistent.” While the public officials that pushed this bill along claim to hold  non-discriminatory intentions, they demonstrated a gross lack of knowledge about the living situations of their constituents at best.[9]

While many Native Americans with reservation P.O. boxes were able to overcome obstacles to the polls, many did not. Some complained that county officials in charge of issuing new IDs were “unavailable” or provided faulty addresses. There were also incidents of two voters going to their polling location only to be told that the facility in Cannon Ball, North Dakota “ran out” of ballots and were redirected to a site an hour and a half away. Additional ballots were provided at their polling location, but this certainly demonstrates the hardship Natives went through to cast their vote.

Voter suppression ultimately undermines the sanctity of elections, keeps underrepresented groups underrepresented, and destroys faith in American democracy. In order to create a government where everyone is included, voter suppression must become a thing of the past.

 


[1] Pilkington, Ed. “US Voter Suppression: Why This Texas Woman Is Facing Five Years' Prison.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 Aug. 2018

[2] Oppenheim, Maya.“Woman Who Tried to Vote Twice for Trump Sentenced.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 18 Aug. 2017

[3] Arter, Melanie. “Gov. Nikki Haley: Voter ID Laws 'Not Racist'.” CNS News, 3 Sept. 2015,

[4] Boeckel, R. (1928). Voting and non-voting in elections. Editorial research reports 1928 (Vol. II). Washington, DC: CQ Press.

[5] Thomas-Lester, Avis. “A Senate Apology for History on Lynching.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 June 2005

[6] Cooper, Mary H. "Voting Rights." CQ Researcher, 29 Oct. 2004, pp. 901-24

[7] “The Facts About Voter Suppression.” American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu

[8] Bump, Philip. “There Have Been Just Four Documented Cases of Voter Fraud in the 2016 Election.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Dec. 2016

[9] Astor, Maggie. “A Look at Where North Dakota's Voter ID Controversy Stands.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018

Logo White

Copyright 2018 © All Rights Reserved