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April 23, 2024

IDEAL hosts student discussion on voter suppression

By RYAN AGHAMOHAMMADI | October 24, 2019

Nonpartisan student organization IDEAL held its first discussion of the year in the Mattin Center on Wednesday night. The discussion centered on the topic of voter suppression. The moderators broke the discussion into three segments: gerrymandering, voter identification laws and the franchise. 

IDEAL seeks to create a less polarized political climate in which students can have informed constructive conversations about politics.

In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Sydney Thomas, the IDEAL president, explained that the topic of voter suppression was chosen in part due to the upcoming election cycle. She believes that her group has helped promote civic discourse and political education on campus.

“We wanted to... give students the opportunity to discuss voting issues,” she said. “A lot of the engagement that IDEAL has done has focused on engaging the student population in voting and civic engagement in general.”

The moderating board explained the definition of gerrymandering: when a governing party decides to draw voting maps that favors their party and their goals. This is typically done in two ways: packing, the act of putting everyone in the opposing party in one district; and cracking, dividing up voters so they’ll be outnumbered in every district. The strategy became widely used in the 1880s when the Republican Party wanted more Congressional seats and split the state of Dakota into two Dakotas.

The eighth Governor of Mass. Elbridge Gerry redrew the districts within the state to such an extreme degree that one of them was said to have resembled a salamander. The term “gerrymandering” is a portmanteau of “Gerry” and “salamander.” 

Racial gerrymandering, where districts are drawn based on the race of residents, is illegal. However, gerrymandering based on political affiliation is an accepted practice and only six states have nonpartisan districting committees.

For some, like IDEAL member Devanshu Singh, the distinction between racial and political gerrymandering is not as mutually exclusive as one may assume it to be. The two are often very closely intermingled, he pointed out.

“Someone could say they’re doing political gerrymandering while actually doing racial gerrymandering,” he said. 

One of the moderators, Amanda Yuen, a member of IDEAL’s education branch, explained that the courts see the distinction in very black-and-white terms. 

“The courts see it as a political problem in the sense that it should be a winner-takes-all system,” she said. “Also, they see race as a very clear protected group, but political party is more of an iffy category because it’s not a recognized protected class.” 

The head of IDEAL’s education branch, Matthew Goynatsky, continued to explain that the bias of the courts lies with the political institutions. For those trying to argue that an act of gerrymandering was racially motivated, getting proof is exceedingly difficult. 

“The burden of proof lies with the people who are trying to prove there’s racial gerrymandering, and that’s a high bar; you have to show documents to show that it was racially motivated — it’s a very high burden of proof,” he said. 

The discussion then shifted to that of voter identification laws. The moderators traced voter ID laws to their roots in the 1950s, when South Carolina began requesting that voters present photo IDs at the polls. While nonpartisan at first, vote ID laws have grown to become a partisan issue, especially as these laws proliferated. By 2016, 33 states had adopted photo ID laws.

They continued to explain that the short-term effects of voter ID laws had sometimes led to an increase in voting by galvanizing the other party’s members. 

Andreas Bonnet, an exchange student, found the lack of universal voting rights to be odd, referring to his own experience in France and French voter identification laws.

“At least in France, we actually have an ID that you need and a photo card, so there’s a double law. It seems very strange to not have any laws. You are automatically registered,” he said.

Sophomore Rakesh Natarajan, a member of IDEAL’s community service branch Hear and Now, did not see voter ID laws as a necessity for fair and secure elections. He cited a report in which voter ID laws were not found to be correlated with a downtick of voter fraud. 

“I read this one report that found that the vast majority of voter fraud happened in states with voter ID,” he said. “Voter ID laws in and of themselves don’t necessarily prevent voter fraud from happening.”

Finally, the moderating panel closed the discussion with a conversation concerning the franchise and its revocation, either explicitly through law or implicitly through discriminatory requirements. They cited three groups of people for whom the franchise is currently a point of contention: felons, youth and U.S. territories. 

When it came to youth voting, opinions differed widely at the event.

“I would say that voting is not necessarily a long-term rational decision-making process. I think it’s very emotional. I think it’s made very much based off of what group you identify with,” Singh said. “A lot of kids are influenced by their parents. I do think it’s unreasonable to say that, especially under the age of 18, you’re able to make the decision to vote in a fully independent manner.” 

Others, like IDEAL treasury member Elizabeth Boroda, disagreed with Singh’s point, stating that the legal precedent for maturation did not necessarily correlate with escaping external influence. 

“It’s not like a switch flips when you turn 18, and then you’re no longer influenced,” Boroda said. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Singh underscored the importance of a discussion concerning the problems associated with voter suppression, pointing toward the increasing political division in the country. 

“I think it’s a problem in general in society. Voting has recently become a more important part of people’s lives. Well, people feel that because polarization has gone up, so more people care about voting and about politics,” Singh said. “More people in society feel they have a stake now because it’s emotionally charged.”

Senior Rob Cortes, press secretary for Hear and Now, echoed this sentiment, explaining the complexity of the issue but also reaffirming the importance of every individual having voting access.

“Voting seems like an easy issue, but it’s very nuanced with things like race, socioeconomic status and place of origin having to do with your right to vote,” he said. “In America, in our democracy, it should be made as easy as possible to vote.”

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