GYC Village

blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff

Suffrage: Right or Privilege?

#gycnyc with Transgendered activist Pauline Park (front) at the Queens Pride House in Jackson Heights

by Nina Vershuta

In November of 2011, the lengthy and violent fight for transgender rights in Pakistan reached a groundbreaking win when the Supreme Court issued a decree allowing nearly 80,000 transgender citizens (known locally as “eunuchs” or “hijras”) to vote in national elections. Pakistan’s transgender community is celebrating their new-found right to have their vote represented in their country’s politics and is applauding the country’s move toward human rights and anti-discrimination in governmental affairs. The Election Commission of Pakistan and the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) are expediting the process for eunuchs to obtain Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs) necessary to cast a ballot.

While Pakistan should be acknowledged and praised for its advancement in transgender rights, we in America are forgetting to first and foremost classify this right as a right to suffrage, and follow-suit ourselves. American-based newspapers, magazines, and blogs have been documenting and admiring LGBT advocacy in Pakistan in regards to enfranchisement rights, but the same media outlets are blind to voter disenfranchisement within our own borders.

While I was participating in a human rights summit held by Global Youth Connect, I was discussing LGBT rights in Pakistan with an international student native to the country. After getting home from the summit, I was ashamed as an Honors Criminal Justice student to have realized I did not draw the clear parallel of voter disenfranchisement ideology in the US with Pakistan.

Nina Vershuta at the 9-11 Memorial. Photo credit: Viveka Hulyarkar

America has fundamental rights to promote an efficient democracy. Out of these rights, the right to vote is held sacred. Yet America strips an astonishing 5.3 million Americans of their right to vote through felony disenfranchisement laws. These laws place a legal barrier between released felons and their society by either prohibiting them from voting permanently or placing a time frame before former criminals can retrieve their civil rights. Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, and Iowa have disenfranchisement laws that restrict citizens with a felony conviction from voting after the completion of their prison sentence. Released felons who have served their time in prison are only granted the right to suffrage after government approval, which involves an arbitrary application process and extended period of time post-release.

Proponents of disenfranchisement policies in the US claim that convicted felons breached the social contract with their community, which undermines their ability to vote responsibly. Following this logic, convicted felons exemplify inadequate decision-making, and therefore cannot be trusted to make decisions influencing our country’s laws nor do they want to make pro-social strides through voting.

Released felons are not suffering from a chronic condition of political lethargy. An analysis by the United States Election Project calculated voter turnout to be around 40% of each state in 2010, with the four states with voter disenfranchisement laws not deviating far from the average. With America seemingly striving to promote democracy in the Middle East and Northern Africa, why are we not changing states’ policies to promote voter turnout within our own borders instead of mounting excuses to refuse right to suffrage to our own citizens.

Restricting released felons from voting attributes one more factor to the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline – the disproportionate number of African-American youth being labeled as felons transcends into a disproportionate say in state and presidential elections, thus enabling these felons are stripped of their constitutional right and of hope that they can influence policy change. A recent study (http://www.soc.umn.edu/~uggen/Uggen_Manza_ASR_02.pdf) quantified and analyzed felony disenfranchisement, concluding that such policies had a drastic impact on at least seven recent U.S. Senate elections and one presidential election.

The disenfranchising policy both in Pakistan and US disproportionately affects minorities and is used as a tool to control elections. Until Pakistan’s Supreme Court decision, it had used the breach of social contract to prohibit the transgender community from voting in its country’s already questionable elections.

Human rights violations are happening under the law in American backyards. While Pakistan is making strides toward fair and inclusive elections, Americans needs to open their eyes, put on their glasses, and read their state’s laws before failing to recall that we strip our own citizens of their right to vote.

Pauline Park gives the young leaders in GYC’s Human Rights in the USA Program a tour of the Queens Pride House. The author, NinaVershuta, is center.

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2 comments on “Suffrage: Right or Privilege?

  1. shezrehmirza
    July 3, 2012

    Great article Nina. 🙂

  2. chersprague
    July 9, 2012

    Nina,

    I loved your blog about voter disenfranchisement because it is something I see happening right under my own nose in Florida. Not only are we not allowing convicted felons to vote after they have already paid their debt to society, we are creating obstacles such as needing multiple forms of ID that may be unavailable to minority groups of a certain generation. One example of this is a birth certificate, which to many people seems like a form of ID everyone would have. However, in many southern states during segregation, African Americans were born at home and not in hospitals, thus never receiving birth certificates. Under these laws, African Americans who have been voting since the 1960s when the voting rights laws were passed will not be able to vote in the upcoming election.

    Related to this, not letting felons vote also creates an incentive to keep the prison pipeline going – if we continue to allow young African Americans to go to jail in disproportionate numbers (and thereby become “felons” disproportionately) they will never have a disproportionate say in their democracy and thus will never be able to help change the situation.

    Great job Nina!
    Cher

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