America’s Electoral Apartheid: 30-40 million US residents excluded from voting

by Konstantin Kilibarda (11/14/2016)

[Photo: “Supreme Injustice” by Joe Brusky via Flickr]

A key component of an apartheid system is the ability to disenfranchise those populations that may tip the political scales. Currently in the United States there are between 30-40 million residents (including millions of US citizens) who remain systematically disenfranchised. The fact that the disenfranchised are primarily racialized or poor, underlines Charles W. Mills’ contention that America’s democracy continues to be premised on a hierarchically structured ‘racial contract.’ Below I’ve compiled a short list of groups in the US who can’t vote, despite living, loving, caring, participating, and working everyday in communities and neighborhoods throughout the country.

If those feeling perplexed by Trump’s rise to power want to build a strong (and lasting) coalition against the Republican politics of hate (and the accommodation of such a politics by some wings of the Democratic party), efforts to expand voting rights, narrow voter suppression, and fundamentally transform the electoral system will play an important role. Racialized communities most directly impacted by these policies have been at the forefront of these struggles since the beginning; it’s now time for those just recognizing these facts to also get involved. The following is a quick breakdown of some of the major groups who live under the US system – some with citizenship, some without – but are nevertheless barred from having a say in the choice of President. Any one of these groups if enfranchised could have made a decisive impact in the 2016 election. Taken together they represent a formidable group that could radically transform American politics. It is perhaps no wonder that Republicans (and some Democrats) are committed to sustaining and even expanding the scope of their disenfranchisement.

(1) 13.3 million permanent residents

Many countries allow permanent residents to vote, yet in the United States those who have attained this status are barred from exercising their franchise. In the rhetoric of the Republican Party, ‘legal’ immigrants are often compared favorably to ‘illegal’ (i.e. undocumented) immigrants. Nevertheless, the Republican Party and some Democrats continue to ensure that all non-citizens (regardless of status) are unable to participate in elections. It’s worth remembering that the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, which was pushed forward by a Republican controlled Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, expanded the grounds on which people can be deported, including explicit prohibitions against and harsh penalties for non-citizen voting.

(2) 11.1 million undocumented residents

Current estimates place the number of undocumented residents in the United States at 11.1 million, including 8 million who are actively engaged in the labor force. While Trump (and other Republicans) portray these US residents as ‘criminals’ and potential ‘terrorists,’ the obvious fact is that the overwhelming majority make vital contributions to their communities (both in the form of informal wage-work, as well as unwaged care work that sustains their communities in the face of frayed social safety nets). In fact, 86% of undocumented migrants have been living in the United States for five years or more, demonstrating that the majority have already established strong roots in their communities. The US is, in fact, unique for relying so heavily on undocumented workers (as opposed to regularized temporary foreign workers) for labor performed by non-citizens. On-going struggles for immigration amnesties, regularization policies, and increasing pathways to citizenship for the undocumented are vital to a long-term electoral strategy.

(3) 6.1 million incarcerated or formerly incarcerated citizens

The most common form of systemic disenfranchisement targeting citizens is through the racialized politics of mass-incarceration that strip 6.1 million citizens of the right to vote. Again, many countries allow inmates to vote, with participation rates often comparable to those of the broader society they are a part of. As Michelle Alexander masterfully points out in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, imprisonment has been a primary means of disenfranchising African-Americans. There are currently 2.2 million individuals behind bars in the US (including those who haven’t been convicted but are unable to post bail), as well as 3.9 million former inmates. Of this number, 1.4 million are African-American males (13% of the African-American male population in the US). In effect, 2.4% of potential voters with citizenship are rendered ineligible to vote as a result of felony disenfranchisement. Again, prison abolition and prisoner justice movements throughout the country have been agitating to re-enfranchise these citizens. This is a crucial demographic of US citizens who have been stripped of one of their core rights due to policies that are systematically racist in their effects.

(4) 4 million residents of US ‘unincorporated territories’

While the US Federal government has extensive powers in governing its overseas unincorporated territories, those living in these jurisdictions have little to no power or say in who ultimately governs them in spite of being considered US citizens. This is a direct result of a long-history of US colonial ambitions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, an unequal relationship that was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. As a result, the unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Marianna Islands, and the US Minor Outlying Islands can elect non-voting members of Congress but cannot cast a vote for President. Most recently, the US Federal Government imposed an unelected Fiscal Oversight and Management Board on Puerto Rico to restructure the islands $72 billion debt through stringent austerity measures. Simply put, Puerto Ricans were not given a say in the matter despite the evident toll it will have on everyday life on the island.

(5) 2.5 to 3 million residents deported since 2008

Along with the above figures on undocumented and permanent residents, it’s also worth noting the 2.5 to 3 million individuals deported during the Obama administration (the highest number of deportations under any US President). It’s worth considering what would have happened if instead of being deported, these residents had been given pathways to citizenship.

(6) 0.5 million homeless citizens

Voting laws in most US states require a permanent home address. This requirement makes it difficult for the (at least) half-a-million homeless individuals in the country to cast a ballot. While some states allow homeless residents to list a shelter as their address, access to information and other obstacles often impede the rights of these citizens to vote.

(7) Citizens under guardianship and those with disabilities

39 US states have laws that bar voting by those deemed to be ‘mentally unfit’ or under ‘guardianship’ by the courts. This includes 7 states that automatically bar anyone with this status from voting. It is hard to come by precise data on the total number of individuals affected by these provisions, since most states that have legislated these provisions do not keep systematic figures on those so designated. A 2008 estimate placed the number of pending guardianship cases in the United States at between 1-3 million. This is in addition to the everyday systemic obstacles to voting that face the 35 to 50 million Americans with disabilities. Many standard voter suppression tactics have a doubly negative deterrent effect on people with disabilities. These obstacles should be understood as a lasting legacy of a long-history of explicitly ableist legislation in the United States.

(8) Citizens affected by 2013 reversals of the Voting Rights Act (1965)

A key victory of the civil rights movement was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then State legislatures have gone to great lengths to design policies that structurally disadvantage black, indigenous, latinx and other racialized voters. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, while at the same time Republican-controlled states have intensified gerrymandering efforts through the REDMAP project, allowing for significant Republican gains in a number of states in spite of shifting (unfavorable) demographics for the GOP. As many as 15 states have adopted voter-suppression laws since 2012. While it is hard to come by exact voter suppression figures, it is widely recognized that the deterrent effect is particularly strong on BIPOC communities disproportionately targeted by these policies. One recent study, found that: ““Democratic turnout drops by an estimated 8.8 percentage points in general elections when strict photo identification laws are in place, [compared to just 3.6 percentage points for Republicans].” Another study identified 868 fewer polling stations in states with histories of voter discrimination. Clearly, in a national election that was decided by statistically razor thin margins in a number of battleground states, this is more than an academic concern. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that even if all these residents were enfranchised, political parties (and movements) will still have to work on winning the vote (or gaining the involvement of these constituencies) by presenting a palpable alternative to the current system. Civil rights are important and essential, but we’ve continuously seen how they can be undermined by the systemic violation of other social, economic, and cultural/community rights. Electoral reform is only one piece of the puzzle of longer standing social justice struggles in the US. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that America’s selective electoral apartheid helps reinforce the country’s foundational ‘racial contract’ in spite of sustained efforts to dismantle it.


Konstantin Kilibarda is a PhD candidate in Political Science at York University.