The Loss of Liberty in an Age of Freedom

What links the Bush-Gore Presidential Election of 2000 and the recent changes in abortion law in the USA?

While two decades apart, the forces shaping both events have been long at work.

As some of you may remember, or most likely not, the 2000 presidential election between the Al Gore and George W. Bush came down to an extremely nail-biting finish, where votes cast in the final state to declare its results would decide the entire election. The state was Florida, (the Republican Governor of which was none other than John Ellis Bush, GW’s younger brother). As the ballots were counted, the news networks gave their predictions before backtracking and casting them the opposite way as different counties pushed and pulled the result between Bush and Gore. As the result was repeatedly “too close to call”, various recounts were instigated across the state. Then, with Bush 537 votes ahead in the recount – a slither of a margin – the counting was stopped. 

At the time eyebrows were raised and questions were asked, but it was only in the ensuing time that the true complexity and importance of the recounts came to light. The types of ballot used, some say, encouraged voters to mark their choice for more than one candidate, producing ‘undervotes’ and ‘overvotes’ which were included in some recounts and not in others. This was further backed-up by the later revelation that sample ballots had been sent to some constituencies with candidates stretched across multiple pages (called caterpillar ballots) and instructions to “vote every page”, however this was neither the ballot or the instruction on the day. This was one of the reasons why in punchcard counties, 1 in every 25 ballots were uncountable compared to 1 in 200 in counties where computers were used, which allowed voters to correct ‘spoilt’ ballots. Funnily enough most states using the old-school punchcard ballots were comprised of African-American and other minority communities – demographics typically more likely to vote for Democrats – and an investigation by the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that even though African-Americans made up 11% of the voting population, 54% of those votes were not counted due to these irregularities. 

Another major issue with the Florida election was the reworking and use of so-called “scrub lists”. At a cost of $4.3 million, two state senators, Sandra Mortham and Katherine Harris – the latter also being the co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida – had contracted the data mining company DBT Online – who’s CEO is a major donor to the Republican party – to create a list of felons who under Florida state law, would be barred from voting in the upcoming election. In the list, released in May 2000, 57,000 potential voters were identified and struck-off the voting register without being informed, many only finding out they could not vote after being turned away at the polling booths. This is entirely legal under Florida’s Disenfranchisement laws that disallow convicted felons from voting. The problem was that an estimated 15% of those names on the list handed out to county authority were not or had never been felons and once again seemed to target minority, largely democrat-voting communities. But what does all this have to do with abortion laws almost two decades later? For that we have to look at the pattern of disenfranchisement in America.

Like many other US states – except Maine and Vermont – Florida does not allow convicted felons to cast their vote from prison. Only 12 states though continue this curbing of rights through to post-sentence, meaning that once convicted, a citizen can never vote again. Ever. Half of these states have such strong ties to their disenfranchisement laws that over 7% of the voting age population are not able to cast their ballot. In the majority of states this percentage hovers around 0.2%-1.5%. These percentages come from 2016 and rates are increasing rapidly. In 1976, the total number of disenfranchised in the whole of the USA was 1.17 million. In Florida as of 2016, the population of disenfranchised citizens stood at 1.5 million; 10.4% of the state’s population. As criminal justice supervision has increased in the USA, so has the rate of disenfranchisement with more people being put behind bars. The rise of the privatized prison market in the 1980’s should also not be ignored and may have increased the “need” to keep prisons full, increasing the amount of felons convicted for relatively minor misdemeanors (further worsened by Clinton’s three-strike-rule). Once again this seemed to systematically target demographics that are historically more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. But as more and more notice is drawn to issues of false incarceration as a result of the often systematic racism in the US – such as Ava DuVernay’s eye-opening documentary 13th which details the amendments made to the US constitution after the abolition of slavery, effectively legalizing the practice – it is increasingly important to use what we learn to spot any more curbing of civil rights, in whichever direction they may lean.

The six states previously mentioned that have a disenfranchised population of higher than 7% are all Southern States. Of these six, three announced bills in 2019 that make it a felony offense to get an abortion. In the case of Mississippi and Alabama this includes abortion in the instance of rape and incest. If you were to expand your view to include states that allowed disenfranchisement up until the end of parole, you would find all the states that have recently tried to pass aggressively restrictive abortion bills. Including the state of Georgia which has attempted to pass the now infamous “Heartbeat Bill” – which makes it illegal to attempt an abortion after 6 weeks, a period of time in which the majority of women won’t even realize that they are pregnant – and the state of Texas, which is looking to remove the current exemption for abortions in it’s homicide laws, marking any woman seeking an abortion as a felony level offender. The combination of the increasingly aggressive targeting of often vulnerable women with the harsh and excluding disenfranchisement laws in these states makes for very disquieting reading. Women are suddenly at risk of jail time by even discussing or showing uncertainty about their unborn child, a feeling that many mothers-to-be will suffer from as shown in the case of Christine Taylor. A single mother of two, Taylor was arrested after confiding in a nurse that she wasn’t sure about continuing her pregnancy due to the lack of financial and emotional support in her life. This is not a defined act and should surely be allowed under the United States’ constitution as freedom of speech, however the life of the fetus now comes before the life of the mother in many states. 

In the past, most states taking an anti-abortion stance have done so in a soft way. For example introducing the need for abortion clinics to have admitting privileges to a local hospital or making it a requirement for providers of abortions to give out misleading and inaccurate information to their clients. This allows the state to say it hasn’t made abortions illegal, but in practice often makes it near-impossible to obtain one. Many hospitals don’t want to get embroiled in the abortion argument for fear of upsetting financial donors or attracting anti-abortion activists, often leaving women to travel hundreds of miles for a procedure. The US Supreme Court is currently considering a law requiring admitting privileges in Louisiana, a law that would leave just one clinic able to perform procedures in the whole state. A similar law has been previously considered by the Supreme Court in Texas 2016 but was struck down as causing an “undue burden on women seeking abortion”, with the now critically ill Ruth Bader Ginsburg playing a pivotal role in the ruling – even going as far as to lay heavy criticism on the legislation at issue.

The past year however has seen a change in the type of legislation being pushed for. 2019 saw a surge in outright bans and calls for the outlawing of abortion procedures instead of the usual preventative and disruptive legislation usually called for – some even laughing in the face of Roe vs Wade. This could be seen as prodding the US Supreme Court, providing ample opportunity to undermine or overturn the long-standing constitutional protections currently in place by passing harsher laws that are more likely to result in a court case, allowing for new precedents to be set.

Nine states including Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi have passed restrictions that are “unconstitutional” according to Guttmacher, leaders of reproductive policy. These unconstitutional restrictions can only be written into law if Roe is overturned, an event that many would have thought unlikely. But with the aggressiveness of policy making in this area increasing – including eight more states with bills set to enter law in the event of Roe being overturned – it might signal that it may not be long before that motion is before us. 

So what does this mean for women in these states? Even if they do not receive Mississippi’s life sentence for having an abortion, the uncertainty of what women can control in regards to their bodies is thrown wide open. Not to mention a short stay in jail could rescind a woman’s voter rights in these states for the rest of her life. It could even be compared to the now shown-to-be racially-biased stop and search laws in maintaining a sense of control over a certain group of citizens. Not to mention that even if convicted for a short time in some of these states, these women, often from minority backgrounds, are relieved of their right to vote and thus their opportunity to change the direction of the political landscape, including the chance to overturn the bills that put them in this position in the first place. 

This brings us to today. Election year 2020 when President Donald Trump has said in an appearance on Fox & Friends, that if proposed voting reforms were introduced into the US system “you’d never have a Republican president again”. While much of his statement is about how Democrats are using a bill supposed to help fight Coronavirus to get more of their agenda across, it could also be a slip as Freudian as a Trump aide in 2016 being on record as saying “traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places” and conservative activist Paul Weyrich’s statement that “our [Republican] leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down”. Such admissions of vote manipulation should be regarded as the new Gerrymandering and a recognition of this pattern is needed as well as a solution. Democrats trying to push too much of their own agenda through in a bill supposed to help the country in a time of national emergency may do them more harm than good, especially at a time when so much hangs in the balance for the civil rights of so many American citizens.

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