Living here in north-central Pennsylvania, we have the beauty of dark skies, two million acres of forested Pennsylvania Wilds, hundreds of roadway miles with no traffic lights, and the friendships and good times of small communities and neighbors who care. Some of these blessings we count from time to time – seeing deer and backyard birds, not having to wait in long lines at banks and the post office, and getting smiled and waved at where we drive or walk. There are dozens of other advantages we have which we scarcely make note of because we don’t even realize how good we have it. We take so much for granted.

One of those things is how easy and convenient it is for us to vote.

This month’s “Purple Zipper” conversation is about “Voter Disenfranchisement,” which doesn’t seem to affect us locally but is an issue of consequence on a national scale, an issue we should at least be aware of, and an issue which does have implications that affect us in the big picture.

“Voter Disenfranchisement” can take place in many ways, and they can be grouped into three categories. One is long-standing disenfranchisement structures, a second is legislative actions of the past decade, and a third is disinformation campaigns, mostly from social media.

The longest-standing disenfranchisement structure, going back to the earliest days of our nation, is gerrymandering, which allows people to vote but robs many votes of their impact by arranging them in districts so that their vote doesn’t count. An upcoming public meeting at the Deane Center on Wellsboro’s Main Street (6:30-8 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 24) will discuss gerrymandering in a depth beyond what we can merely mention in this column. The electoral college and the structure of the U.S. Senate have similar effects on democratic representation. Due to power given to small states, it’s been calculated that 8% of the U.S. population can control 34% of the Senate, which can theoretically void the opinion of 92% of Americans when 2/3 votes are needed. Since the Senate has exclusive control of federal and Supreme Court judicial appointments, this has implications for our justice system.

The voting requirements of individual states have historically disenfranchised groups of people. As we know, only white, male property-owners over the age of 21 could vote when our first presidents were elected. We have gradually expanded the franchise to all men and women, younger voters, and citizens of all races. However, states still differ in how the franchise is extended or withheld. The main example is commission of a felony. In some states, commission of felony takes away the right to vote for a lifetime, while in others, those who have “served their time” get a re-set with society.

Specific legislative actions of the past decade have been effectively structured to disenfranchise certain groups of voters. These have included such things as:

  • closing over 1600 polling places
  • moving polls to inconvenient or distant locations
  • shortening the hours at polling places
  • adding limits on early and absentee voting
  • purging voter rolls
  • initiating strict photo-ID requirements
  • requiring street addresses (to eliminate voters with P.O. box addresses)

The effect of most of these new requirements is to disenfranchise voters who are younger, poorer, shift-workers, and non-white. To consider just one effect, how many potential voters can be lost if people have to wait in lines that are an hour long – or two, or three, or even four hours long?

Disinformation strategies, usually employed on social media, have also been effective in reducing the number of voters. Sometimes mailings have “accidentally” (?) been sent to groups of voters, announcing incorrect dates, times, or locations for voting or for submitting absentee ballots. Social media, including “deep fakes” and misrepresentations of candidates’ positions, has encouraged people not to vote at all, portraying all options as equally bad, or even evil, or convincing people that everything is hopeless and we cannot trust any journalism or any candidates.

Purple Zipper, pulling together the perspectives of the Team Red and Team Blue, will share more of this month’s discussion over the next couple of weeks.

Wanda Shirk is one of the leaders of the Purple Zipper Conversations, held from 6-7:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month in the Coudersport Public Library.