If you’ve been online in recent months you may have noticed repeated messaging coming from Americans with a platform/people talking to American followers. That message is simple: register to vote, and then make sure you vote.
This is vital, yes, as the 2020 election will have impacts that reach far beyond the borders of the USA. However, I think it’s also important to understand how voter suppression takes place in the US too. When we see election results come in, it’s useful to know they aren’t always indicative of the actual will of the people, as so many may be disenfranchised and unable to vote at all. Learning about these tactics means we’re better prepared to fight them in the USA and beyond, as we push for a more democratic and equal world.
So, here’s what I’ve found. I hope it’s helpful.
What is voter suppression?
Voter suppression is any move, whether illegal or legal, that prevents eligible people from registering to vote or voting. It can take the form of laws, administrative rules, or specific tactics. The goal is to maintain power and manipulate political outcomes, creating results that don’t accurately reflect the will of the people.
While Trump specifically has a habit of conflating voter fraud and security issues with equal access, voter suppression has existed before him and is not solely down to him. What is true, however, is that many suppressive laws have predominantly come from Republican policymakers, especially since the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.
The history of voter suppression
The American voting system is complex and decentralised. Sometimes this is a good thing, as it means that, for example, interfering with national election results would require hacking into thousands of separate election databases and facilities across the country. Different systems have different balloting (some on paper, some on screens, some read by a scanner and some manually, some sent by mail, some done in person) so, while the Electoral College makes it easier to target elections in a particular state, a nationwide breach in election security is difficult to achieve. It also, theoretically, allows local and state-level officials to adapt to the needs of their constituents.
However, it also means states can decide on all the core elements of an election including registration procedures, voter ID laws, absentee voting laws, poll worker training, and polling station operations. Depending on the state and leaders in question, this can lead to harsh voter suppression that intersects with race and income. The marginalised are often the targets of suppression, leaving them with no democratic representation, say in policy marking, or route to democratically see the changes needed to dismantle their oppression (this, in turn, makes it all the more frustrating when some people get upset about protests when protests are often the only way to be heard).
In the Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder case of 2013, the Supreme Court rolled back the Department of Justice’s ability to prevent the passing of laws that limit voting access in states with a history of voter suppression. Before this, under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, states could pass any election legislation they wanted, but these changed required federal “preclearance” after assessing the law’s effect on voters.
24 hours after the Supreme Court decision of 2013, Alabama passed strict new voter ID laws. They made it a requirement to have an ID to cast a ballot, then closed and reduced hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles offices (where people could get IDs) disproportionately in areas with high black populations. It’s not rocket science to understand what the goal was.
Since this ruling more than half of US states have passed voter suppression laws targeting minority voters, however the country has already seen pushback:
The turnout in the 2018 midterm election, the highest since 1914, aided by a massive effort of civil rights organizations, was so overwhelming that control of the House of Representatives flipped to the Democrats and accountability finally began to creep back into the political landscape.
Many voter suppression laws are passed citing the need to tackle election fraud, however a 2014 study found only 31 cases of fraud between 2000 – 2014 out of one billion votes. You can read more on why voter fraud is largely a myth here.
Who is affected by voter suppression?
In general, most people who are targeted by voter suppression tend to be those who are likely to vote for left-leaning parties. In the USA’s case, this is democratic voters, because the majority of US citizens support the policies of the Democratic party. BIPOC individuals are disproportionately affected by suppression in comparison to white voters, as are women (more so if they are trans or married), students, people with disabilities, the elderly and low-income or homeless people.
In almost all cases, the people that benefit from voter suppression tactics are Republican lawmakers and, by extension, the corporate donors that fund them.
Here are some examples according to ACLU:
- 70% of Georgia voters purged in 2018 were Black.
- Across the country, 1 in 13 Black Americans cannot vote due to disenfranchisement laws.
- One-third of voters who have a disability report difficulty voting.
- Only 40% of polling places fully accommodate people with disabilities.
- Across the country, counties with larger minority populations have fewer polling sites and poll workers per voter.
Methods of voter suppression
Voter suppression takes many forms, and it’s important to be diligent in spotting and attempting to tackle it where we can. Here are some of the most common forms:
Intimidation of minority voters
This usually entails an abusive use of state power to intimidate and criminalise marginalised people for voting or registering minorities to vote.
Examples include Georgia’s record in this area, both past and present, or the announcement of David Whitley in January 2019 that 95,000 non-citizens (immigrants) were registered to vote in Texas. Whitley claimed 58,000 of them had already voted and turned over names to Texas’ attorney general to pursue criminal prosecution. This turned out to be a lie, as the list actually contained tens of thousands of naturalised citizens who were allowed to vote. In essence, Texas tried to remove Americans from voting because they had previously been immigrants, sending a message to Latinx voters that they could be turned over for investigation for exercising their democratic right to vote. In the current climate of human rights abuses from ICE and targeting of the Latinx community, this is very intimidating behaviour.
Voter ID laws
This encompasses any time states require identification at the polls. Thirty-six states have identification requirements at the polls, while seven have strict ID laws where voters must present a government-issued photo ID from a very specific list in order to cast a vote
Over 21 million U.S. citizens do not have government-issued photo identification. IDs can be costly even when technically free and aren’t always accessible. If you don’t have a car or live close to an agency providing ID, if your accessibility needs make it difficult to leave the house (for example, in a global pandemic where you may need to shield in your home), not being able to take a day off work to get an ID, or not being able to pay for the documents needed to get a ‘free’ ID can all be major hurdles. This can be a significant burden on low-income communities, those with disabilities, the elderly and those in rural areas, to name a few.
These strict ID laws are part of an ongoing strategy to suppress the vote, and it works. Voter ID laws have been estimated by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to reduce voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points, translating to tens of thousands of votes lost in a single state.
Some states also require citizens to show ID even when voting by mail. In Wisconsin, voters had to send in a digital copy of their ID to receive an absentee ballot in the mail. For those who didn’t have a scanner at home while services like libraries are closed to due lockdown, they were effectively blocked from voting. However, requirements like this or signature laws aren’t particularly effective anyway.
The only case of mass voter fraud since the 2016 election involved absentee ballots. In 2018’s North Carolina Ninth District congressional race, Republican candidate Mark Harris “hacked” absentee ballots through an elaborate scheme in which his team went around collecting ballots from voters while posing as election officials, and replaced the voters’ intentions with ballots they filled out themselves, without the voters’ knowledge. Those involved were then charged with fraud.
The witness signature law in North Carolina did not protect those voters. In reality, voter signature matching issues between someone’s original registration and their vote-by-mail ballot, along with witness signatures, have been found to disproportionately harm certain demographics of voters more than others.
A study from the ACLU of Florida found vote-by-mail ballots in the 2012 and 2016 elections more likely to be tossed out from younger and ethnic-minority voters across the state, where only a matching voter signature is required. State election officials can reach out to voters to remedy any errors before an election, but that outreach doesn’t always take place, so it’s up to voters to track their own ballots.
In Georgia’s 2018 election, U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May ruled that ballots with “mis-matched” voter signatures could not automatically be thrown out after the ACLU, Georgia Muslim Voter Project, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta brought attention to the high numbers of ballots being disregarded. In Gwinnett County alone, 600 mail-in ballots were rejected because of a signature matching issue.
Closing ID offices
If a state requires specific forms of ID to vote, voters need to obtain this. Officials have closed agency offices issuing IDs multiples times, effectively blocking them from voting by making it impossible to get the ID required.
DMV offices in the run-up to the 2016 election sometimes openly defied a court order to supply photo IDs after that state’s gerrymandered legislature added strict new ID requirements. A federal court found may have disenfranchised as many as 300,000 citizens, leading directly to Trump’s win in states with very close margins.
After 2018 Tennessee tried to criminalise voter registration drives, despite being ranked bottom in the nation for voter turnout. When, according to the New York Times, tens of thousands of new black and Latinx voters were registered in Tennessee in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, the Republican-dominated legislature complained that registration forms were incomplete, and therefore voter registration drivers needed to be held accountable. Luckily a judge struck down this law.
Other states restrict registration by requiring people to register long in advance of an election. New York requires voters to register at least 25 days before an election. In the 2016 presidential election, over 90,000 New Yorkers were unable to vote because their applications did not meet the 25-day cutoff, and the state had the eighth-worst turnout rate in the country.
Purging voter rolls
Cleaning up voter rolls can be a good thing, as people may change address or die. However, sometimes this process is used to mass purge eligible voters for illegitimate reasons or based on incorrect data, without giving notice to voters. Often voters only learn they’ve been purged when they show up on election day.
Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, has been successfully sued by the ACLU multiple times for suppressing the vote. He created CROSSCHECK, which was said to be a program to compare voter roll data from state to state and removes duplicate entries to clean up the voter rolls. However, a Stanford study found that for every legitimate match found, it produced up to 200 false positives. Voters show up to vote to find they’ve been removed from the rolls, and are unable to vote.
Voting is not enough when 33 million Americans have been purged from the voter rolls between 2014 and 2018, according to the Brennan Center. The purge rate is as much as 40 percent higher in states that have a demonstrated history of racial voting discrimination.
Voting is not enough when Wisconsin purges 14 percent of its voters between 2016 and 2018 — nearly double the national average. Voters in black neighborhoods were nearly twice as likely to be kicked off the rolls as those in white suburbs. It is not enough when, in 2018, Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp ran for governor while simultaneously looking to purge some 300,000 voters from the rolls and pausing an additional 53,000 registrations. Nearly 80 percent of those paused were blacks and other minorities.
In 48 of the 50 states, voters automatically lose their right to vote when convicted of a felony. If prison is supposed to exist as a form of punishment in which someone serves their time and their debt is paid off, why should they also have their rights removed by not being allowed to vote? Considering what we know about how unjust and racist the policing/prison systems in the USA are, this essentially suppresses a huge amount of BIPOC voters. For example, more than 20% of all African American adults were disenfranchised in Florida because of a felony conviction.
In Florida, a citizen-led ballot initiative also passed to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who had served their sentences. Republicans immediately attempted to fight back, adding a rider to “clarify” that a completed sentence required paying all of the court fines, fees, and penalties accrued during the trial and incarceration before the returning citizens’ voting rights would be restored. This was, essentially, a poll tax that blocked poorer people from voting.
Limiting early voting
Nearly every US election is held on a Tuesday but isn’t a national holiday. Early voting helps voters who can’t get time off work, have family obligations or other legitimate reasons that prevent them from voting on the official day. States with properly implemented “no-excuse” early voting systems see higher turnout numbers during the early voting period, leading to shorter lines on election day itself. Removing early voting means everyone is forced to vote on election day, which can lead to long lines which can suppress the vote.
Every decade states redraw district lines based on population data gathered in the census. These lines allocate representation in Congress and state legislatures and should be redrawn to reflect population changes and racial diversity. Gerrymandering, however, involves drawing electoral districts to favour one party, denying legitimate representation in government.
This is also something that Democrats have participated in, but not to the extent of their Republican counterparts. After the 2010 census, for example, the GOP initiated Operation REDMAP to draw districts favourable to GOP candidates. It resulted in Democrats often getting the most votes, but the GOP getting the most seats.
Underfunding election day resources
States, counties, or districts not providing proper funding to staff and/or equip their polling places leads to longer lines and longer wait times. Some people aren’t able to stand in line for hours, both because of physical and financial reasons, essentially denying them the right to vote. We saw this as recently as the June 2020 primary in Georgia, where polling places were closed, they failed to provide enough provisional ballots and defective voting machines were installed.
hundreds of precinct closures and relocations in Georgia increased the average distance between voters’ homes and the polls, preventing an estimated 54,000 to 85,000 voters from casting a ballot in 2018 — and making it 20 percent more likely for black voters to miss the election, according to an Atlanta Journal Constitution study. Kemp defeated Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams by fewer than 55,000 votes. Nationwide, more than 10 percent of precincts were closed nationwide between 2008 and 2016, and once again, these closures fell hardest on communities of color. We saw its latest effects this week as newly shuttered precincts forced predominantly minority voters in Georgia voters to wait in six-hour lines to vote during a pandemic.
Defying the law
If a voter is in line to vote before polls close, they have the legal right to stay in line until they can vote. Sometimes election officials will ignore this and close a polling place as soon as it hits official closing time, which violates election law. In the Kentucky primary, June 2020, election officials closed the only polling place in Jefferson County at 6pm despite voters still being in line to vote.
Election security issues
States like Georgia have been accused of full-fledged hacking to sway elections. In the 2018 lieutenant governor’s race, there were 127,000 missing votes, the discrepancy was found to affect only people in predominantly black precincts who used the machines on election day. Their votes simply disappeared.
The voting machines used in the 2018 election were easily hackable, had no auditable paper trail, and ran on Windows 2000. As journalist Timothy Pratt noted: “Security vulnerabilities in the state’s election system had been repeatedly exposed: by Russian operatives, friendly hackers, and even a Georgia voter who, just days ahead of the 2018 midterms, revealed that anyone could go online and gain access to the state’s voter registration database.”
…While multiple states are spending over a hundred million dollars on this flawed equipment, Republicans have refused to enact election security legislation, even as Vladimir Putin, when asked if Russia will interfere in the 2020 elections, “jokes”, even taunts, that: “I’ll tell you a secret: yes, we’ll definitely do it.” Given that Russian cyberattacks in 2016 targeted African Americans and voting systems in all 50 states, this bodes ill for 2020.
Failure to communicate
While most states postponed spring elections in the wake of COVID-19, Wisconsin went ahead with their election on April 7. In Milwaukee, where the largest percentage of black residents live, the city was reduced from 180 polling stations to five, and voters were called on the day of the election to be informed. This kind of last-minute information leads to many missing their chance to vote
So what can we do?
There are organisations out there working to fight voter suppression in the run-up to elections. If you’re based in the US I would recommend looking up any organisations that are local to your area and supporting disenfranchised voters, marginalised communities, and fighting for local legislative change.
More generally, one of the most useful resources working in this area is Demand the Vote. Their website contains information on voting in every state, while also tracking newly introduced state-level legislation that can affect voting and elections, enabling voters to support bills like Automatic Voter Registration, No-Excuse Absentee Voting, and Election Day Registration. These bills will make it easier to vote, and fight tactics such as voter ID requirements and purging voter rolls.
Their resources page also contains a list of organisations working on voting rights (including specific Black-led organisations such as More Than A Vote) and writers/activists to follow online who specifically advocate for voting rights. While their get involved section contains information on text banking, canvassing, phone banking, registering voters, helping voters get an ID, fundraising and more.
Voters with felony convictions who need help registering to vote or voting can also check out Restore Your Vote
Here is some information from the ACLU:
- Tell your senators to pass the VRAA, which would reinstate critical protections against voter suppression left behind after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
- Know Your Rights before you get to the polling booth. Here’s a guide on what to do if you face registration issues, need disability or language accommodations, or come across someone who’s interfering with your right to vote. Share the guide on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.
Finally, in the wake of the current pandemic conditions, look into supporting the USPS however and wherever you can. There are large concerns around interference with the postal service being used to suppress mail-in voting across the US, this must be prevented.
The biggest message election experts have to voters casting an absentee ballot: Mail in your ballot as early as possible to make sure it’s counted.
“Don’t wait to register to vote, don’t wait to request a ballot on the deadline,” Patrick said. “You’re never going to get that ballot in time.”