Your ballot, nestled neat with its crisp sleeve and paid postage, has most likely arrived in your mailbox. Here in Washington, voting by mail was the norm long before the travails of the pandemic pushed states to cobble together plans to distribute and gather absentee ballots. Yet all U.S. voting systems are extensions of oppressive states with classism and racism, and many states passed modern laws under the “end voter fraud” banner that make voting inaccessible, especially for long marginalized groups: Black, immigrant and poor Americans.
Since 2010, 25 states have implemented voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. These kinds of restrictions are a systematic effort to keep people from casting their votes and having a voice in democracy. The ACLU defines voter suppression as laws that “lead to significant burdens for eligible voters trying to exercise their most fundamental constitutional right.”
Voter suppression isn’t new. If anything, it is a continuation of the legacy of racism that underlies slavery and segregation. It’s especially rampant in conservative and border states. To name a few: Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, Arizona.
One of the most egregious cases of voter suppression in recent times happened around two years ago in Georgia’s gubernatorial race, when Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams — a Black woman — challenged now-governor Brian Kemp, a Republican.
That year, Georgia created a “no match, no vote” policy, requiring voter registration forms to match state records exactly for a person to vote. Additionally, officials cut off voter registration about a month before Election Day. This disqualified some 87,000 people from voting. Many of these people were Black voters and lived in Democratic districts.
An American Public Media report found there was lower voter turnout in the 17 states that cut off registration a month before Election Day in 2018. The Georgia governor race is emblematic of how systemic legislation can withhold the right to vote and control election outcomes. The APM report says these states will have a “huge impact” in the upcoming elections. And these suppressions will certainly lock in with the instability of voting during a pandemic.
How did we get here?
To understand how U.S. voting carries longstanding oppression, we must go back to 1866, after the centuries-old legacy of slavery was abolished following a bloody civil war. The following timeline is based on the ACLU’s research of the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 1965 and guarantees citizens the right to vote regardless of race or gender.
1866: Following the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery and the Confederacy, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 is passed. It grants citizenry to U.S.-born people — excluding Native Americans. Further, not all American citizens are allowed to vote; Black people are not allowed to vote.
1869: The U.S. Congress passes the 15th Amendment to let Black men vote, although states begin adding voting barriers of literacy, property ownership and poll taxes.
1896: Louisiana sets the trend of Grandfather Clauses, which mean a citizen may only vote if their grandfather was eligible to vote. This is a way to disenfranchise Black men who had been enslaved and their descendants from voting, while freeing up white citizens who could not pass poll literacy tests or financial barriers. Other states, especially those in the Deep South, followed suit and passed Grandfather Clauses. Where previously 44 percent of Louisiana’s Black population could vote, these laws whittled that down to 4 percent.
1920: Three-fourths of states finally agree to amend the Constitution to let women vote. Non-white women are still kept from voting in various ways. All Native Americans and some non-white people are forbidden from voting, as they are not deemed citizens.
1940s: Only 3 percent of Black Americans in Southern states are registered to vote, as a result of literacy tests, poll taxes and a litany of Jim Crow laws that erected barrier upon barrier to the polls.
1962: After most states have — gradually — let Native people vote, Utah becomes the last.
1964: The 24th Amendment removes poll taxes.
1965: The Civil Rights movement compels that voting rights be extended to Black Americans, notably with the march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. Congress signs the Voting Rights Act, and by the end of the year, scores of Black Americans are registering to vote.
1970s-2000s: The Voting Rights Act is extended multiple times, often by Republican administrations. The number of Black representatives in government begins to increase.
2011: Suppressive voting legislation shows itself again, soon after Barack Obama has been elected the first Black U.S. president.
2013: The Supreme Court diminishes Voting Rights Act oversight of voting restrictions, saying it is no longer needed because times have changed.
2018: Georgia’s gubernatorial race serves as a “textbook” example of voter suppression.
2020: This presidential election, multiple tactics to curb voting are occurring, targeted at swing states via vague, widespread dissemination.
Suppression wears many masks
We may no longer have poll taxes, literacy tests or Grandfather Clauses, but voter suppression abounds in many avatars. The Voting Rights Alliance website lists up to 61 forms of voter suppression. Living in a state where voting is made as easy as possible and ballots are sent to your mailbox by default, it may be confounding to suss out what voter suppression looks like. Here are a few common tactics used by state and county governments to suppress the right to vote, often targeting communities of color, naturalized citizens, students and people with disabilities.
Strategic polling placement: For a long while, polling stations have been set up where the privileged live. This year, the same is true for ballot drop-off locations. The location of where people can vote limits citizens’ geographic and safe access. Recently, Texas’ republican governor Gregg Abbott made last minute changes that would close many drop boxes, essentially leaving one accessible drop box location per county, requiring miles of driving for many residents to cast their vote. Similar stories abound in Kentucky, Indiana and other states.
Confusing collection: In King County, we have numerous — “more than 70” — drop boxes to collect our ballots. Placement, however, is a big factor here and elsewhere. A recent case in California highlighted how ballot box placement can be manipulated: The state’s Republican party placed unauthorized and unsecured ballot boxes in Los Angeles and Orange counties. While it is legal to collect ballots this way, the process did not follow California’s state law. The party claimed that a volunteer had accidentally labeled the collection boxes as “official,” according to Politico.
Strict ID requirements: Many states require some sort of photo ID or proof of citizenship not just to register, but to actually vote at the polls. Sometimes multiple types of ID can be required. This imposes a financial barrier because there are costs involved with obtaining a state ID. Eleven percent of U.S. citizens do not have an ID. There are also complexities around obtaining birth certificates, passports and other identification documents that people may not have access to on voting day.
Some states require voter registration and signatures to match state records; any discrepancy, incorrect or outdated address leads to disqualification, like Georgia’s “no match, no vote” policy.
Voter registration loopholes: One of the most common ways voter suppression is legitimized is creating barriers to register to vote. This may mean requiring multiple IDs to simply register or limiting registration windows so people do not have enough time or information. Some states cut off registration a month before Election Day and eliminate day-of registration, limiting new voter registration and changes to registration and, finally, who votes.
Disenfranchising through arrest: When a person is convicted of a felony, one of the consequences is being stripped of the right to vote. As the ACLU points out, there are varying laws as to how far that consequence can reach. In some places, one cannot vote while incarcerated, while in others, one cannot vote for life. This disenfranchises not only people who have been convicted but also people who have gone through the criminal justice system — and this is heavily tied up in racial and economic disparities, because the U.S. incarcerates disproportionate numbers of Black and poor people.
Purging voter rolls: Purging voter rolls is needed to vet for deaths and out-of-date information. But it is a process prone to error that can disqualify voters. In addition, some voter rolls have been purged along the lines of whether someone has voted in the past several elections. If they haven’t, their registration is deemed ineligible. Purged voters may not know of their status change until they have shown up and waited on Election Day
Cuts to early voting: Early voting windows are cut short, leaving little time to vote ahead of Election Day and taking away promise that your vote will count. This also causes long lines until late at the polls, limiting access for disabled people, low-wage workers and caregivers who cannot afford long wait times.
There are additional ways voter suppression manifests, but a confusing system that prioritizes some populations’ votes is a catch-all method on which our entire electoral system rests. While voting is considered the hallmark of a democracy, it has never been a guarantee in the United States. Look to other democracies around the world and you’ll find varying expectations and approaches to democratic voting. In some places, like Australia, laws instill that it is a citizen’s duty to vote. In the midst of a pandemic and a fraught presidential election, it is imperative we understand the complexities of voter access and the actual process of collecting the vote.
Online resources: ACLU.org, BrennanCenter.org, PublicIntegrity.org, WAVotingJustice.org
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Oct. 21-27, 2020 issue.