William S. Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project and co-editor of Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People (The New Press, 2020). He previously served as a senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy, and remains an advisor to several policy organizations and think tanks.July 17, 2020
As we approach the 100-day mark until the presidential election, there is a lot of talk about voter suppression. For those who are unsure what voter suppression means, here is a working definition: It’s what a political party does when it doubts it can win an election honestly.
Both political parties have engaged in voter suppression in one form or another, but Republicans are most closely associated with the practice these days. They reportedly believe that when a lot of people vote, Democrats win. Increasingly the “lot of people” they worry about are people of color – Blacks, Hispanics and Asians – whose numbers are gradually pushing white Americans into minority status.
Because voting is a fundamental right in our representative democracy, the process should be as easy as possible everywhere. Instead, many states have built barriers to make participation as difficult as possible for voters who threaten the status quo. Here is some background, followed by some examples:
The Constitution gives states the job of running elections, so the rules and procedures vary across the county. However, all presidential elections are held on the same day – Nov. 3 this year – and with a few exceptions, every American citizen who is 18 or older on that day has the right to vote. (Citizens born in the American territories cannot vote for president and in many states imprisoned felons can’t either.)
To guarantee that right, Congress passed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1866, giving everyone born or naturalized in the United States equal protection under the law. Four years later, the 15th Amendment was added to the Constitution to ensure that no eligible citizen can be denied the right to vote regardless of race, color or “previous condition of servitude.”
The 15th Amendment was not an exorcism, however. Racism did not vanish. It remains deeply embedded in some individuals and states, most often in the South. Racism motivates voter suppression in many places; political partisanship is the motivation in others when one party or the other tries to tilt the election it its direction.
After the Civil War, racial discrimination was so blatant in America that it mocked the Constitution. In some places, Blacks were required to qualify for voting by guessing the number of jelly beans in jars or by passing literacy tests that would make an SAT look simple. Fear was used to suppress Black votes. People of color and civil rights workers were intimidated and killed by white supremacist groups.
In March 1965, about 600 civil rights advocates began a 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery, intending to confront Gov. George Wallace about voting rights. The march was a response to the death of activist and deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot the month before by a state trooper during a peaceful march elsewhere in the state.
But the marchers were turned back by state troopers and “possemen”, who beat and teargassed them in what became known as “Bloody Sunday”. President Lyndon Johnson responded by sending Congress the bill that became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Among other things, it required nine states and nearly 60 counties and townships with histories of racial discrimination to obtain pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing their election rules.
Forty-eight years later in June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the pre-clearance requirement. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned that “things have changed” in the South. As if to prove Roberts wrong, the nine states and several others rapidly created a “tidal wave of voter suppression” with election rules designed to exclude people of color and low-income citizens from voting. Among other devices, states instituted overly strict voter identification requirements, erected barriers to voter registration, purged of voter lists, disenfranchised felons, and rejected mail-in voting.
Overly Strict ID requirements: Voters are required to present identification at the polls in 36 states. The requirement is especially strict in seven states that require specific government-issued photo IDs such as passports and birth certificates. The travel and costs necessary for to obtain the IDs often is difficult for rural people, people with disabilities, the elderly, and low-income citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union reports that 21 million Americans do not have government-issued identification. To make getting one even more difficult, Alabama instituted a photo ID law, then closed 31 driver’s license offices in black areas -- offices that were among the most common places for people to obtain photo IDs. Problems likes these have been widespread this year.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that voter turnout is reduced as much as 3% because of the ID requirements. That amounts to tens of thousands of voters in many states.
Difficult registration: States that want to inhibit black and low-income voting make it difficult to register. Some states impose strict deadlines, usually well before election day. During the 2016 election cycle in New York, for example, more than 90,000 people did not register before the cutoff 25 days prior to election day. Many people missed the deadline because they were not focused on the election that far in advance. More progressive states allow voters to register up to and on the day of an election.
Voter purging: With this tactic, election officials remove people from voter rolls if they haven't participated regularly in past elections. The Brennan Center for Justice found that nearly 16 million people were purged from voter rolls between 2014 and 2016, with higher purge rates in states with histories of racial discrimination. In Brooklyn four years ago, thousands of eligible voters attempted to cast ballots in the presidential primary election, but were told that they were not listed on voter rolls. The New York Attorney General looked into it and found that the city’s Board of Elections had improperly removed 200,000 names.
Felon disenfranchisement: States have a variety of laws that restrict or prevent voting by felons. Some states restore the voting right for felons who have completed their sentences, but others keep felons from voting for the rest of their lives. These restrictions are discriminatory because Blacks are often treated more harshly than whites for violating the same crimes. More than 6 million Americans, including one of every 13 black Americans, has been disenfranchised because of past felony convictions.
Inconvenient polling places: Even before the pandemic, some states reduced the number and convenience of polling places. One study found that the states and counties freed from the Voting Rights Act had 1,173 fewer voting locations in 2018 than in 2014 despite significant increases in voter turnout. Before its primary elections earlier this year, Kentucky cut the number of its polling places from 3,700 to just 170 — a 95% reduction. Georgia closed 5% of its polling stations, then shut down 80 more in Atlanta because of the pandemic.
In Wisconsin, a key swing state, the City of Milwaukee cut its voting locations from 180 to five for last April’s primary elections. Green Bay reduced its locations from 31 to six. Nearly 60% of the state’s municipalities were short of election volunteers and 111 jurisdictions were unable to staff even one polling place because of COVID-19. Voter suppression is of special concern in Milwaukee, which gave Trump the state and the presidency in 2016 admit charges that thousands of black residents could not vote.
Prohibiting mail-in voting: All states allow some form of absentee voting when a citizen can’t show up on election day. Before the pandemic, only five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – allowed voters to routinely file their ballots by mail. This year, that process is particularly important because in-person voting may expose people to the coronavirus. Voting-station volunteers have the same concern. Because of the pandemic, some states are loosening their rules to allow more mail-in voting, but it should be allowed nationwide, not only this year but permanently.
Mail-in voting has advantages beyond keeping people safe from the virus. It allows people to vote conveniently and at their own speed. It avoids suppression tactics like unreasonable voting hours and inconvenient locations. Plus, China has hacked the records of U.S. Postal workers, but it and Russia haven't been able to stop the mail (so far as we know).
Nevertheless, some Republicans, notably President Trump and Attorney Generally William Barr, adamantly oppose mail-in ballots, claiming without any evidence that it invites massive fraud. The real reason for their opposition is the aforementioned idea that more voters make it more likely that Democrats will win.
Voter intimidation: Another way to depress voting is to make voters afraid to show up.
This year’s GOP ground game reportedly includes as many as 50,000 volunteers in 15 key states to monitor polling places and to challenge voters who are “deemed suspicious”. It’s not clear what the volunteers will consider suspicious, and how they will challenge voters.
So he can fight the November election’s results if he doesn’t like them, Trump is stirring up emotions by claiming that Democrats will try to steal the election. The New York Times reports that the GOP will use advertising, the internet, Trump’s media allies and his bully pulpit to cast Democrats as election thieves. This raises worries about an especially odious form of suppression: the presence of firearms.
It would not be unprecedented. When Trump tweeted earlier this year that his followers should “liberate” their states from COVID quarantines and face masks, citizen militiamen turned out in cammies and brought military-style rifles to some of the demonstrations against the restrictions.
Journalist Robert Koehler reports that white and black protestors both are showing up with weapons at public events. He recounts an incident in Georgia on the Fourth of July when “several hundred mostly Black, mostly armed men and women” marched through a Confederate theme park. The same day in Richmond, Virginia, “Boogaloo boys” and traditional white supremacists showed up at the state Capitol and faced off with Black protestors. Members of both groups were armed. One of the Boogaloo boys led everyone, black and white, in a rendition of “America the Beautiful” before the white nationalists resumed their speeches about “white genocide”.
Although voter intimidation is against federal law, most states have no laws prohibiting concealed or open-carry guns at voting places. Anyone who brings firearms to a voting location this fall will be doing so in an atmosphere of heightened racial tensions. The intimidating combination of weapons and tensions may keep some voters away.
Elsewhere, other racists are proving how wrong Justice Roberts was when he reasoned that “things have changed”. Blogger Anjali Enjeti has written about recent incidents that will give veteran civil rights workers a bad case of déjà vu:
On the first day of Georgia’s early voting for midterm elections, for example, the nonpartisan organization Black Voters Matter chartered a bus in a rural, majority-Black town, to transport 40 African American senior citizens from a community center to the polls. Jefferson County officials blocked the bus, claiming the “event” was “political.”
Nine days later in the rural, majority-Black town of Cordele, Georgia, a state trooper ticketed County Commissioner Royce Reeves, Sr., for temporarily parking his limousine on the wrong side of the road. Reeves, who is African American, was picking up voters to take them to the polls. When confronted, Reeves immediately agreed to remedy his minor traffic violation. Nevertheless, he was surrounded minutes later by nine law enforcement vehicles.
Sadly, the November election may be the most contentious, voter-suppressed and result-delayed in American history. Unless he was referring to the disappearance of jelly beans jars or the unpredictable antics of a president who may not like the results of the election, Justice Roberts may want to reconsider whether “things have changed”.
What can be done? To reduce intimidation on election day, local officials can do three things: They can conduct voting in government buildings and schools where firearm restrictions already are in place, cities can pass ordinances that prohibit open-carry or concealed firearms anywhere near voting stations, and law enforcement officers can strictly enforce the no-intimidation law.
In regard to the more traditional forms of vote suppression, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that between 2010 and last November, 25 states created new restrictions on voting. Fifteen imposed stricter identification requirements, 12 made it harder for people to register and remain registered, 10 made it more difficult to vote early or to cast absentee ballots, and three made it harder for people with past criminal convictions to get back their right to vote.
Justice Roberts left the door open to reinstating federal oversight of some states’ election laws if Congress were to establish criteria based on current conditions. Toward that end, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill last December to update the data that determine which states and practices are discriminatory. The bill received only one Republican vote in the House, however, and it stood no chance of passage with Republicans in control of both the Senate and the White House.
The Brennan Center has proposed several new laws that would help make voting easier for all citizens. An excellent set of recommendations has just been proposed by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Center for American Progress has recommended several reforms including early voting, voting at home and same-day on-line registration.
Clearly, the courageous civil rights work of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s is not over yet. The many thousands of demonstrators in the streets today for equal rights and police reforms might want to turn their energies to continuing that work.
With subtle and no-so-subtle encouragement from Donald Trump, racists have come out of the shadows, and they have big plans. For them and for other groups that want to subvert our representative democracy, there would be nothing so useful as keeping their friends in the Oval Office and the Department of Justice.
© William S. Becker. This article originally appeared on Real Biocene on July 10, 2020 and is reprinted here with permission.