Columbia | SIPA

Voting Rights v. Voter Suppression

Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was the keynote speaker at the 15th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum, “Voting Rights v. Voter Suppression,” on Monday, March 26th, 2012 at SIPA. 

The event began with an introduction by Interim Dean Robert C. Lieberman, who introduced Jealous and the evening’s discussion, saying that voting rights in the United States was “something we had all been hoping was a settled issue. We now find it is not settled. Voting rights are once again at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and equality in America.” 

In his address, Jealous emphasized that the fight against voter suppression was not happening in a void.

“My generation is the most incarcerated in the planet and the most murdered in the planet,” he said. “The disproportionate incarceration of the black community and voter suppression are exactly the same thing.” 

Throughout his speech, Jealous shared personal stories about his grandmother and his family who have been fighting for civil rights at the NAACP for generations.

“What we have always been fighting for is a version of our freedom,” he said. 

He explained that the main challenge for him is focusing on what to fight for when there is so much that needs to be confronted. “To make things better for the next generation, you have to be extremely focused. What do we fight for? These days, the fight is against mass incarceration.”

Losing the right to vote is not only a civil rights issue; it also limits the ability to fight against other civil rights issues.

“What we have fundamentally as a people, as a community, is our voice, our right to vote,” said Jealous. “We’ve suppressed the vote, minimized the vote, shaved off a little here, a little there… This year, what we have gone through is the biggest assault on voting rights, pushing out 5 million people.”

In the panel discussion following Jealous’s speech, SIPA Professor Dorian Warren added,

“Historically, efforts at voter suppression have always been about suppressing issues of equality and social justice.”

Jealous’s address came amidst the controversy in Sanford, Florida  over  the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent protests. Jealous had been in the city the week before and described the situation as the tensest he had ever seen. According to the accounts   he heard, Jealous said that the major reaction was the deep pain of racial profiling.

“Protecting the vote and ending racial profiling are actually the same thing,” he said. “The disproportionate incarceration of the black community and voter suppression are exactly the same thing.”

The persistent theme of the forum was the unfortunate and surprising ubiquity of voter suppression laws, both currently and in the foreseeable future.

“We will have to fight voter suppression legislation every year,” said Jealous. 

- Michelle Chahine

Sanford, Florida is really Sanford, USA.

Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

Jealous was the keynote speaker at the 15th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum: Voting Rights v. Voter Suppression, on Monday, March 26, 2012 at SIPA.

In his address, Jealous emphasized that the fight against voter suppression was not happening in a void.

"My generation is the most incarcerated in the planet and the most murdered in the planet," he said. "Though we’ve been incarcerated more than our white peers, not like this…  The disproportionate incarceration of the black community and voter suppression are exactly the same thing." 

Jealous also discussed his recent trip to Sanford, FL because of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent protests. He had just spent a week in the city, and described it as the tensest place he had ever seen in his life. After talking to people and hearing 12 emotional testimonials, he found that two trends emerged: 

"The first, is a deep pain of black men being killed and police not caring about it… and another broader theme of racial profiling," he said, "and it occurred to me, that Sanford, FL is really Sanford USA."

Watch Jealous’s entire address here:

After his speech, a panel was introduced by Professor Ester Fuchs, Director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at SIPA. The panelists each added their thoughts on voter suppression and racial profiling. 

Panelists left to right: Professor Fredrick C. Harris, Elinor R. Tatum, Professor Dorian T. Warren, Benjamin Jealous, Professor Theodore M. Shaw and Professor Rodolfo de la Garza. 

Professor Dorian Warren said that voter suppression was not only tied to mass incarceration, but to a range of activities being taken at the state level, that included racial profiling and racial targeting of immigrants. He added that, historically, suppressing voting rights has been about suppressing social justice and equality.

Professor Fredrick Harris, Director of Columbia University’s Center on African-American Politics and Society, also gave the audience a historical view of voter suppression, redistricting and demographic shifts, emphasizing “the importance of developing multiracial coalitions.” 

This led to a discussion between Professor Rodolfo de la Garza and Jealous on the importance of coalitions between the black community and Latino community.

"We’ve got to do more together," said de la Garza.

Columbia Law Professor Theodore M. Shaw later weighed in, saying:

"The issues with regard to African-Americans in this country, along the color lines, will remain dominant, important issues… Looking at what happened in the case of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and some people have the gall to say this isn’t about race. There is a deep racial divide, and that remains on the black/white divide even today."

Finally, Elinor Tatum, Publisher and Editor in Chief of the New York Amsterdam News, warned of the role the media is playing. She said that by scaring people the media is dividing them. 

Tatum later added a personal note, reflecting back on the evening’s main discussion points, particularly the importance of working together across minority communities:

"If we don’t work together, there will be nobody left standing. And it’s getting crucial, and it has been crucial. But I think we’re just seeing it now. From everything to this assault on voting rights to what happened to Trayvon," she said.

"I have a 17-month-old daughter, and when I found out I was having a girl, I was so happy, because I was afraid to raise a black boy in the city."

This event was live-tweeted. For more highlights from the event, click here:

- Michelle Chahine 

Several SIPA students share their experiences from field work across the world for their Workshops in Development Practice. For more information on the projects featured in this video, click on the links below:

Promoting a Political Voice in Georgia

Access for All: Students Design Pilot Credit Program in Tanzania

“Untouchables:” Students Examine Health Care Access for Nepalese Dalits

-Michelle Chahine

Promoting a Political Voice in Georgia

Marissa Polnerow (MIA ‘12) and Alexandra dos Reis Stefanopoulos (MIA ‘12) interview the Deputy Chairwoman of the Georgian Parliament Rusudan Kervalishvili. 

Two SIPA students got the extraordinary opportunity to sit down with a high-ranking leader from the Republic of Georgia – Deputy Chairwoman of Parliament Rusudan Kervalishvili.

The students are part of a team of six from SIPA’s Economic and Political Development concentration. The group is collaborating with the Women’s Political Resource Center in Georgia, to examine the level of political participation of internally displaced persons.

"We’re particularly focused on women," says Marissa Polnerow, "and analyzing how they can promote their voices in Georgia and promote more inclusive governance."

As part of their Workshop in Development Practice, Polnerow and Alexandra dos Reis Stefanopoulos traveled to Georgia in late January to conduct interviews.

They attended an IDP conference and conducted several interviews each day with women, academics, NGO leaders, and government officials. They also conducted two focus groups with two different sets of women, one from the first wave of IDPs from Al-Khazia in the early 90s, another with the second wave of IDPs from the 2008 war.

Polnerow and dos Reis Stefanopoulos with a focus group of internally displaced women in Georgia.

During their interviews, Polnerow and dos Reis Stefanopoulos spoke with Rusudan Kervalishvili to get her views on the political participation of women in general and internally displaced women specifically. 

"We wanted to speak to her as a woman leader in Georgia, and she was very open," said dos Reis Stefanopoulos. "She was telling us about her family history, what it was like growing up and her dream for living in a free country and being successful as a woman. And now she’s representing women in Georgian Parliament."

"Rusudan Kervalishvili is the most powerful woman in Parliament," added Polnerow. "But there are six other women in Parliament, which is a very small representation of women’s views."

The team’s challenge will be to recommend strategies to increase the participation of internally displaced women, within the challenges for the IDP community and the political participation of women in general.

Their four teammates will travel to Georgia in March to meet with more stakeholders and gather additional research for their final report. They will also meet other members of the IDP community, including men and youth, to get more perspectives on their needs.

"My goal would be to develop, with my teammates and the people that we meet, some really practical, really concrete recommendations that would do actual good," said dos Reis Stefanopoulos.

"I want something that can be useful to our client and to other community members in Georgia, so that women’s representation improves, or is on the way to be improved."

"Georgia is facing elections in the upcoming year," added Polnerow,"So this is an important time to be talking about these issues and promoting more inclusive governance."

- Michelle Chahine

Why Do We Vote?

Analyzing, predicting, and influencing voter behavior will be in the news for much of the next year as local and national campaigns - including those in the race for the White House - try to gain an edge.

Professor Michael Ting lays the groundwork for research into why voters behave the way they do, as co-author of A Behavioral Theory of Elections.

In a recent interview, Ting explained the root of the academic problem:

"There’s a ton of research out there on elections, and one thing that people don’t have - and I don’t blame the researchers, it’s something the field lacks in general - is a very good handle on what motivates voting behavior. We can look at the data set and try to interpret patterns. But I think it’s better to start with theory and move from there."

That is what this book, published in 2011, aims to do - establish an appropriate theory for this field of research and analysis.

Ting explained that economic models are usually used for analyzing elections, treating voter behavior similar to consumer behavior. 

"When you think about elementary economics, the basic agent is the consumer. Basic economics is about adding up [the decisions they make, why they act in certain ways, why they choose to buy things] into analyzing markets," he said.

This framework is applied to voter behavior and elections. However, according to Ting, this is problematic because consumer behavior is different from voter behavior in two important ways.

First, when you vote, you are presumably most interested in the group outcome. This is different than the consumer who is making individual decisions for himself or herself.

Second, with voting, there are lot of people engaging in activity that doesn’t actually affect the outcome - when predictable results are expected. Ting cites a blue state like New York, where individual voters casting ballots for a Democrat or Republican will not affect the national outcome.

So why is there a large turnout to vote?

"In the voting context, this is one sphere of human activity, where maybe one reason we vote is kind of because it’s like a habit and reactions to the environment," explained Ting. "I’m not thinking about my chances of being pivotal. I’m thinking of the outcome."

"What we have now is an economic model for politics," he added. "How comfortable are we as analysts? It turns out, we might have to move to models rooted in psychology to find out why people turn out to vote in the first place."

"I do hope that this book maybe will help people to think of voters in a different way," Ting said. 

Ting says he became involved in the project as a student at Stanford University, working with faculty members and co-authors Jonathan Bendor and Daniel Diermeier. David A. Siegel is the fourth co-author.

-Michelle Chahine