GT33m - Issues in the Contemporary Politics of Industrial Societies.

Topic 2.

February 2, 2001.                        Voting Rights.

The Issue.

In the aftermath of the American presidential elections, 2000, the issue of voting rights has emerged as part of a renewed phase in the civil rights and civil liberties struggle to end the remaining discrimination against mainly racial minorities. The controversial loss of Al Gore is seen as a loss for the minorities who make up the more powerless races, gender, age and income groups, compared to the dominant in these categories that supported George W. Bush.

The voter preferences were:

Voter groups                 Gore      Bush       Nader    

Men                                 42%      52%          3%    

Women                            54         43              1       

Black                                90          9              1      

White                                42        54              3      

Hispanic                            62        35              2      

Over 65                             50        47              2     

First timers                        52        43              4     

                      (Newsweek, November 20, 2000, p.18).

Historically, democracy has favoured those who control most of the capitalist assets of the economy and who benefit most from the priveleged positions that such control allows. Put another way, democracy and the right to vote came first for and continue to serve best, the economically active and dominant groups - white, middle aged, middle and upper income, men. It was this group that voted predominantly for the pro-capitalist Bush.

The Gore voters were racial minorities, women, retired people and young voters (first timers) who are on the margin, or at least outside, of the mainstream of the economy.

Two things in particular stand out:

- there was great racial polarization in the vote, especially between black and white voters, of 90% for Gore and only 9% for Bush; and 65% to 35% of the Hispanic vote. (Of the Hispanic or Latino votes a majority of Mexican and Puerto Ricans identified with the Democratic Party but a majority of Cuban Americans identified with the Republicans).

- for many voting groups, especially racial minorities, neither of the two main parties or none of the six candidates fully met their preference. The two party system does not serve them. Fifty percent of all Americans don=t vote for a president and only about 35% vote in congressional elections. The turn out of racial minority groups is below the national average while whites vote above the average showing that the two parties do have more meaning for white voters and share enough of a consensus on issues relevant to those voters.

In Britain=s 1997 elections, the same polarization was noticed between races. Asians voted 75% in favour of the Labour Party and blacks voted about 85% for Labour. White males vote more for the Conservative party.

If democracy is >government by the people, of the people and for the people,= the statement begs the question, which people? That is, which people believe that they can make a difference by voting and which people benefit from voting? Clearly racial minorities and younger voters do not believe governments in America, whichever is elected, will help them much.

Racial minorities have traditionally not voted in significant numbers because the right to vote came later for them, many obstacles have been placed in the way of minority registration and they have not been convinced that the political system of the dominant race helps them. It was only by the 1965 Voting Rights Act that blacks got the unfettered right to vote.

The Voting Rights Act.(VRA, 1965).

This Act seeks in particular to:

- prohibit the use of voting laws, practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, colour or language. Such processes and procedures include systems of registration, voting, candidacy qualification and types of election systems;

- minimize vote dilution which cancels out the voting strength of racial and other minorities. Vote dilution occurs when the white majority in a district votes as a racial bloc against minority candidates so that there are only very few minority candidates overall to represent minority voters.

The VRA was amended in 1975 to include minority language groups such as Native Americans, Asian Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

It was further amended in 1992 to require the provision of bilingual assistance to language minority citizens at all stages of the voting process and in all elections.

The fulfillment of the spirit and provisions of the VRA have been a continuous struggle and the presidential elections have raised new alarms about possible reversals and fuelled a new phase of voting rights activism.


The Voters= Bill of Rights.

Since the elections, American civil rights and civil liberties organisations have put together a Voters= Bill of Rights that calls for:

(1) Strict enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

(2) Abolition of the Electoral College.

(3) Independent and Non-partisan election bodies.

(4) Statehood for the District of Columbia (Washington D.C).

(5) Non-discrimination against third party candidates in the media and presidential debates.

(6) Proportional Representation.

(7) Clean money in campaign finance.

(8) Instant run-off voting.

(9) Return of voting rights to those incarcerated.

A coalition of the sponsoring organisations held a National Day of Resistance on inauguration day to highlight these demands and will continue to campaign for them.

Minorities and Voting.

Racial/ethnic minorities.

Tony Affigne states that: AScholars of black politics rightly argue that black political empowerment has not to date resulted in social and economic equality, but the political enfranchisement of black Americans since the 1960's has nonetheless altered US politics beyond recognition. Across the US, as in the rest of the Americas, local, state and federal agencies face renewed assertion of sovereignty and land rights by Native American nations. And for three or more generations, US communities of Asian and Pacific Islanders, including refugees from the 1965-73 US war in Southeast Asia, have pursued their own political development, building Asian ethnic and panethnic organizations, electing increased numbers of Asian-descent public officials, and raising Asian participation levels. Latino emergence in the US is thus part of a broader transition toward greater democratization and effective suffrage for ever larger Anon-white@ (i.e., not of European descent) populations.@ (PSP, xxxiii, 3, 2000, p. 523).

In the 1996 presidential elections, the voting turnout of racial groups in the US was, white (61%), Black (53%), Indian (46%), Asian (46%), Hispanic (44%). (Affigne, p.525). The same undeparticipation can be assumed for ethnic minorities in the industrial societies of Europe since they tend to be less politically organised, register in smaller numbers, do not believe voting will really help, and many might be non-citizens without the right to vote. For instance, 40% of Latinos in America are not citizens.

Not only are minorities underrepresented as voters but they are underrepresented as representatives. Only about 8% of American representatives in the Lower House of Congress are Blacks, about 4% Latinos and less than 1% are Asian. The notion that America is a land of immigrants - a melting pot - is not reflected in political representation, at least, the representation of non-European immigrants and native-born minorities.

In Britain, just over 1% of MP=s are from the ethnic minority in spite of the large African, Caribbean and Asian population. There were nine minority MP=s elected in 1997, all representing the Labour party and none representing the Conservative party. According to Lohe, in a 1990 opinion poll, 39 percent of conservative party supporters and 29% of Labour party supporters admitted that they were racially prejudiced. This obviously means that if one-third of the electorate is racially prejudiced, ethnic minorities would stand a poor chance of being elected  (except in >safe seats= where immigrants prevail numerically), and would be generally overlooked by the parties when they are nominating their candidates.

Saggar (PQ, 69,2, 1998) shows that a consistent percentage of over 70% of the British have felt that too many immigrants have been allowed into the country (p.152); that 70% of Conservative MP=s (in 1992) and 42% of Labour MP=s (1982) favoured the repatriation of Britiain=s non-white residents. Again, this shows a resistance to elect and integrate minorities into the society and the political system.

In Australia, the first Aborigine to become a member of the Australian parliament did so only as recently as 1971, and the second even more recently, in 1999. 

The above shows that racial minorities have still to become full and equal participants as voters in major democracies such as America and Britian. Election systems and electoral practises still discriminate against racial minorities. But minority politics has become even more important if these societies are to build tolerance, respect and equality in countries that, because of the global movement of people, is creating increasingly multi-ethnic societies. For instance, by 2050 the racial minorities in the US will become a majority. Today=s struggle for the voting rights of minorities will become struggles for tommorow=s majority. For now, ethnic politics is faced with continuing struggles in immigration and citizenship policies, education and language policy (bilingualism), health care (for non-citizen immigrants), racial profiling in police action, crime control and justice policy, labour rights (fair wages and employment) and the balance of power between minorities and whites who control the main institutions of law, business and politics.

Indegenous Peoples.

The same is true for other minorities - the indegenous peoples - such as the Native American Indians, the Maoris of New Zealand, and the Aborigines of Australia. Australian Aborigines only won the right to vote in 1967. In the 1960's, the civil rights movement in the US and the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa also influenced a change in conscousness towards the civil and political rights of indegenous peoples in America, New Zealand and Australia. But in all these cases, voting rights have not been tranformed into social and economic equality.

In the case of the Australian Aborigines, for example, life expectancy is 15-20 years less than for white Australians; only 33% complete schooling against 77% nationally; 2.2% have tertiary degrees compared to 12.8% for white Australians; 18.5% more Aborigines are in Australian prisons than white Australians; unemployment is 33% for Aborigines but under 10% for white Australians and the infant mortality rate for them is 3 to 5 times higher than for white Australians. Only two Aborigines have ever sat in the Australian parliament. It is only in 2000 that the Australian constitution committed itself to a policy of >reconciliation= (including over land rights) with the Aborigines (caused by the worldwide focus on Australia leading up to the Sidney Olympics and the fear of embarrassment by threatened Aborigine protests to focus world attention on their situation).

In New Zealand, the situation is a little better. Six seats (5%) in the country=s 120- seat parliament have been reserved for the Maoris. But they are still underrepresented in proportion to their population of which they comprise 10%.


Women, though a numerical majority in all the industrialised countries, is a power-minority in them. Women vote as much as men (although minority women do not). Yet, women are greatly underrepresented in the legislatures. Minority women face the most severe problems. They vote less than women as a whole and are underrepresented in legislatures even less than minority men are.

Wilma Rule provides a Table that shows that among 23 industrial democracies, women on average occupied 16% of the parliamentary seats between 1989 and 1993. A summary shows:

33%-39% seats       - Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark.

20%- 29% seats      - Netherlands, Iceland, Austria, Germany.

15%- 17% seats      - Switzerland, New Zealand, Spain.

10%- 13% seats      - Luxembourg, Canada, Ireland, United States.

2%  -   9% seats      - Belgium, UK, Australia, Italy, Portugal, France, Greece,                                   Japan.

Finland ranks number one with 39%; the US ranks 15 (10.8%), and Japan ranks last with 2.3%.

She assesses what this says about democracy: A Democracy falls short when women of whatever color or ethnic group cannot cast an effective vote to elect representatives of their choice or to enact laws they believe are critically needed. When there are higher proportions of women in parliament, for example, more laws are enacted for the benefit of children.@ (PSP, xxii, 4, 1994, p.689). (Interestingly Jamaica has about 11% women parliamentarians at present, and over the period recorded by Rule, she lists Trinidad as having 13.5% and Barbados with 3.6%. Jamaica=s MP, Marjorie Taylor, has special responsibility for children=s rights).

As has been traditional, men dominate parliaments over women and white men dominate over all others in industrialized countries. Rule focusses on the US case and finds that for 1993:

- men (of all races) made up 89% of the House of Representatives;

- white men made up 78%;

- white women made up 8%;

- black men made up 7%;

- Hispanic men made up 4%;

- black women made up 2%;

- Hispanic women, Asian men and women together made up 1%.

White men and women led the numbers of representatives. There is a huge gap between white men and all others. Just as racial and ethnic minorities have their special issues, so too does feminist politics. Henry points out that, A men and women experience life in different ways. Women cannot let all-male groups decide on abortion or sexual harassment. Nor can women let all-male groups decide on education and health, on defense and foreign affairs, on budgets and immigration: these are all part of women=s lives too. Parity in parliament might even shed new light on >new= issues such as equal wages, equal opportunities, infrastructure for working parents, etc. Gender has to become a criterion for standing in elections in the same way as coming of age is.@ (PQ, 66, 3, 1995, p. 179). She concludes, AThe future face of democracy depends on proper equality of representation among men and women.@ (p. 180).

Voting Rights Reforms.

Voting rights and citizenship.

The prevailing position is that the right to vote is restricted to citizens of the particular country. But with globalization and the increased world movement of peoples, a new position is developing, one that suggests that residency, not citizenship, should form the criterion for voting rights.

A European Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level has been created but it still to be ratified and faces rejection by some European countries. The idea is to allow non-citizen Europeans and non-European immigrants who have a certain number of years of residence, who work and pay taxes and who are subject to the country=s laws, police and justice system, housing, health and education policies, etc., to have a right to elect persons in local government elections, and for themselves to be able to stand for election.

A majority of the members of a Swedish Voting Rights Committee considered that place of residence, not citizenship, should be the determining criterion for who should have the right to vote in parliamentary elections in Sweden. In Sweden, non-citizens have already been elected to local government posts.

A 1996 paper of the Commission of the Council of the Baltic States on Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, urged member states to accept the right of immigrants to vote and be elected at local government levels.

This would obviously benefit the millions of immigrants in Europe, assist in their integration into those societies, help in creating laws and policies befitting of the multicultural societies that are in the making in the traditional white countries. It would overcome the reluctance on the part of these immigrants to renounce their national citizenship to adopt the citizenship of the host country in order to have the right to vote. Present laws and attitudes treat these immigrants as >guest workers.= But the new attitude would recognize that they are more than workers and that they are entitled to human rights that would provide them with fuller opportunties to influence the environment they and their families live in.

Proportional Representation.

Wilma Rule among others, argue with evidence to show, that countries with proportional representation election systems have more women in their legislatures than those with FTP (winner-take-all) systems. The ten industrial countries with the most women in their parliaments have PR systems. Anglo-American systems with FTP systems (US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia) had less women represented in comparison. (New Zealnd has changed its electoral system to a mixed PR/FTP system since Rule=s study). The odd country is Japan with PR (also, subsequently reformed to mixed PR/FTP) which ranked at the bottom of Rule=s list. In Japan=s case, cultural factors have overridden the potentially positive PR effect.

The same benefits would accrue to minority races. Amy asserts that, AProportional representation elections have long been used by other Western democracies, and they do a very good job of ensuring fair representation for political and racial minorities...The advantage of proportional representation elections, and one of the reasons they are so popular in other countries, is that they allow for fair representation of both minorities and majorities.@

He refers to the situation where, before 1992, no African American was elected from North Carolina to the US Congress despite the fact that they made up about 24% of the electorate.

Similarly, the Latino population would benefit, especially in those states where they make up between 20% and 40% of the population (Arizona, Texas, California, New Mexico - the last three of which were taken from Mexico in the American -Mexican wars in the 1800's anyway).

Proportional representation is one of the reforms being proposed under the Voters= Bill of Rights.


Redistricting means redrawing certain district constituency boundaries in which there are sizable black populations in such a way as to give blacks a majority in that district (called majority-minority districts). It is to create black majority districts for the expressed purpose of increasing the chances that blacks can elect their own to state and federal legislatures. The Voting Rights Act had expressed the need to find ways to improve the voting rights and choices of blacks, not only to vote but to obtain greater representation.

Parker explains how redistricting can impact on black representation: AIn redistricting after the 1990 Census, to comply with the requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, state legislatures and federal and state courts adopted new redistricting plans that produced large increases in minority representation. The number of majority-black and majority-Hispanic congressional districts was doubled between 1990 and 1993, from 29 to 52, and this resulted in a 50% increase (from 26 to 39) in the number of black members of the US House of Representatives and a 38% increase (from 13 to 18) of Hispanics.@

This was particularly helpful in those states of the south - the former slave-owning states that still have large but badly underrrepresented blacks: AThe most dramatic increases in black representation in state legislatures occurred in Mississippi, where black representation almost doubled (from 22 to 42), and Lousiana, where the number of black legislators increased 60% (from 19 to 31). Despite this growth, minority representation in Congress and state legislatures still did not provide proportional representation for minorities.@ (My italics).

The redistrciting efforts of 1990 to 1993 did not last. It was struck down by the courts (Shaw vs Reno). It caused a backlash by whites who claimed in court that redistricting placed them in back-majority districts and offended their own rights to elect their preferred representatives (white). The Court argue that racial districting reinforced the perception that members of the same race were all alike in the way they think, that they shared the same political interests and will prefer the same candidates. In other words, and quite ironically, the court was saying that racial redistricting harmed the rights of blacks to vote for white candidates if they so wished, ignoring the question that they might not wish to vote for whites and that without racial redistricting, white candidates had a better chance to outpoll black voters with numerically larger white voting. The fact is that blacks prefer to vote for black candidates, especially in the south.

Parker puts it this way: A Minorities seek majority-minority districts precisely because white racial voting in many areas prevents minorities from electing their preferred candidates except in majority-minority districts, and the Supreme Court previously acknowledged the impact of racial bloc voting by citing it as a key element of minority vote dilution lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act.@

In fact, racial districting (gerrymandering - named after an early US politician, Elbridge Gerry, who had opportunistically cut the boundaries of a constituency in such a way that it happened to resemble a salamander), was first used by whites to create white-dominant districts. It was used along with literacy tests, Grandfather Clauses and the like, to reduce black voting and representation. A combination of these practices had reduced Mississippi, one of the most racist states, to a situation where only 6.7% of blacks had registered to vote in 1964, although it was the state with the largest black population.


The state of voting rights in the industrial countries is of importance to Caribbean and all immigrant and non-white people. It is through the proper excercise of these rights that minorities will be able to influence the domestic environments of those countries which is important for those who become immigrants and citizens of those countries. But it is also by electing minorities that the politics of those countries can be influenced in ways that are positive to the developing countries. To the extent that ones sees politics as world politics then it follows that it is world peoples of different races and ethnicities that must empower themselves in politics and that requires inclusion in the politics of industrial countries.

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