Why the Right to Vote Is a Reproductive Justice Issue

Nikita Mhatre

November 5, 2018 | Reproductive Rights

With the 2018 midterm elections less than one day away, the American public is gearing up for a crucial vote that will help determine the future of our country. At a time where reproductive rights face an existential threat from nearly all levels of government, voting can help ensure a future where all women have access to the reproductive health care they need. However, discriminatory practices such as voter ID laws and proof of citizenship tests can significantly limit people’s access to the ballot. And the people most impacted by restrictions on voting rights are the very same people most affected by anti-abortion laws — people of color, low-income individuals, the LGBTQ community, young people and immigrants. Therefore, it is imperative to recognize the right to vote as a reproductive justice issue, where voter suppression and lack of abortion access intertwine to undermine the dignity and power of a large portion of the population.

SisterSong, a leading reproductive justice organization, defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children and parent children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Reproductive justice requires that we center the people most affected in our fight for justice and listen to the issues they find most pressing for their own communities. This becomes very challenging though, if these individuals do not have the opportunity to shape their own government through voting. It is not a coincidence that communities that are disproportionately impacted by barriers to abortion access — through coverage restrictions, mandatory delays and other restrictive policies — are also those who experience voter disenfranchisement.

Voter Disenfranchisement

Since 1980, women have had higher voter turnout than men, with voter turnout among women of color significantly rising in recent years. For example, in 2012, Black women had a turnout rate of 70 percent, followed by white women at 66 percent, white men at 63 percent and Black men at 61 percent. However, there has been a trend of discriminatory decisions that could turn back the clock.

Shelby County v. Holder

In the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Ignoring racial disparities in voting, the Court held that the old requirements, though they made sense in the 1960s and 1970s, now represent an unconstitutional violation of states’ power to regulate elections. The Court essentially implied that discrimination is no longer an issue where access to voting rights is concerned, and states should be able to place extra requirements on voting and voters if they want to do so. The results of Shelby County have been largely predictable: voter ID laws have been advanced across the country, while laws making it easier to register and cast ballots have been pushed aside. For individuals living in jurisdictions formerly under federal scrutiny, voting has become more difficult, primarily for poor and elderly Black people and Latinx, and voter ID laws have contributed to an increase in the turnout gap between Black, Latinx and Asian voters in comparison to white voters.

North Dakota

In early October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn a North Dakota voter ID law that requires residents to show identification with a current street address — a P.O. box is not sufficient. This poses a large problem for individuals living on Native American reservations, as many do not use physical street addresses and instead use P.O. boxes to collect mail and rely on tribal IDs that do not list an address. Native Americans could previously use tribal identification at polling places, but for the upcoming election they can no longer use these IDs — a decision that was finalized less than a month before Election Day. Tens of thousands of North Dakotans, including both Native and non-Native residents — do not have residential addresses listed on their IDs. While they have the option of proving residency through supplemental documents such as a utility bill, 18,000 North Dakotans do not have those documents either, likely resulting in disenfranchisement for many of these 18,000 people.

Supporters of this drastic measure claim that it is vital in protecting against voter fraud, as North Dakota is the only state that does not require individuals to register before voting. However, the state has only prosecuted one case of voter fraud in decades. This law must be seen for what it is: a blatant attempt to restrict Native Americans’ voting rights.

Georgia

Under Georgia’s signature-matching protocol, more than 500 absentee ballots or ballot applications have been rejected because the signature on the ballot does not match the signature on file. These voters were not given advance notice nor an opportunity to appeal the rejection. Unsurprisingly, people of color make up a majority of these rejections. The ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund have filed a lawsuit to “stop an ongoing constitutional train wreck that threatens to disenfranchise potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of voters casting absentee ballots leading up to this year’s November 2018 general election.”

While a U.S. District Judge recently halted this practice, voters of color also face disenfranchisement through voter purges and Georgia’s exact match policy. In July 2017, Georgia purged more than 500,000 voters from its rolls, and an NPR analysis found that more than 100,000 of those voters were removed for not voting in previous elections. And as a part of its exact-match system, the state is allowed to suspend a person’s ability to vote if the information they submit on their voter registration form does not exactly match their driver’s license and social security records. As of July 4, more than 51,000 voters have a “pending” status, with 80 percent of those being Black, Latinx and Asian American. If these 51,000 voters are not cleared to vote by November 5th, they will lose the right entirely.

Listening to Women of Color

The unique views and experiences of women of color should inform laws and regulations, as well as how we address issues of access both to abortion and to the vote. We must remember the history of controlled reproduction and denial of bodily autonomy imposed on women of color during colonization and slavery, and understand that this history is echoed in restrictions on accessing reproductive health care and in the continued experiences of racism in the health care system — which are particularly acute for Black women. According to Liz Chen, writing for the Center for American Progress, disenfranchisement has two effects: “it removes people from the political process, and then it denies them a voice on matters that directly affect their lives, including their ability to access reproductive health care, make decisions about whether, when and how to parent, and ultimately shape the course of their lives.” Ensuring women of color are able to vote is one way to affirm their freedom to make their own decisions, and helps clear the pathway to increased political power.

Voting rights are more important than ever in the context of a hostile administration, Congress and state governments that are policing bodies, further eroding access to care and looking for more ways to take away rights or render them meaningless. This ability should be protected, not further endangered. Stand with the National Partnership in our fight to protect women's fundamental rights. Learn more at nationalpartnership.org/issues/repro.

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