In the US, the intertwined history of voting, voter suppression, and racial discrimination is as old as the nation itself, dating back to the very founding of the country in 1776 when only White landowning men over 21 could vote.
Today, voting laws and poll-watching operations in many states may not be so explicit, but their goal is effectively the same: limit – or at the very least discourage – voting by certain populations. Certain populations that in practice happen to primarily be poor or people of color.
Shelby vs Holder: The Bad Old Times Are Back
Much of the current wave of voter suppression measures dates back to the disastrous 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby vs. Holder. The 5-4 decision gutted a part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required nine states – mostly in the South – and several districts with histories of discrimination to obtain “pre-clearance” from a court or the Justice Department approving any changes to their voting laws.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts declared that the part in question – a formula used to determine which jurisdictions required preclearance – was “based on 40-year old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”
The present day, however, thought otherwise. The effect of the ruling was immediate and devastating. Right after the decision (in one case, the very day it was announced), Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas introduced highly restrictive voter ID laws that disproportionately affect minorities and reduce minority voter turnout.
It’s important to note that study after study shows that the supposed target of these measures – voter fraud – is virtually and statistically non-existent. When researchers look into irregularities, what they often find instead isn’t deliberate fraud but simple human error. As just one example, the Washington Post found that – despite all the claims of millions voting illegally – there were just four cases of voter fraud in the 2016 election. Four. Out of 136.7 million votes cast for president.
The bottom line: Voter fraud isn’t a threat to our democracy. It doesn’t really exist. What is a threat are laws disenfranchising millions in the name of transparency.
Voter ID Laws Were Just the First Step
States didn’t stop with targeted voter ID laws. Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina began purging voters at much higher rates than before Shelby and other states like Ohio also began purging many eligible voters. The result: states purged some 17.3 million voters from the rolls between 2016 and 2018.
Other means of minority voter suppression are more subtle but no less consequential. This spring, Milwaukee cut polling stations from 182 to five for primary voters in a city of nearly 586,000 people, a move researchers estimated cut Black participation by 10 percent. Voters in Louisville, Kentucky, where people of color represent 30 percent of the population, had all of one polling station to vote in their 2020 primary.
These disparities can’t all be blamed on the pandemic either – and they add up to a very different voting experience depending on the color of your skin. According to research by the NAACP, Black and Latinx voters wait 45 – 46 percent longer to vote than Whites. And as anyone who’s ever been in line for anything knows, the longer you stand in line, the more likely you are to leave. It’s human nature.
The problem also goes to whose vote gets counted. The ACLU, for example, reported that in Florida, younger, first-time, and minority voters were at least twice as likely as older and White voters to have their ballots rejected when voting by mail. We’re seeing a similar trend in 2020, where Black voters’ mail-in ballots are being rejected at a rate more than four times higher than those of White voters, due to voters making mistakes or failing to have their witness sign-in properly.
So how has it all added up? As any good scientist will tell you, correlation is not causation. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that following the Shelby decision, minority voter participation in federal elections has plummeted after nearly 40 years of gains following the 1975 revision of the Voting Rights Act going into effect.
We have seen some victories. In 2016, a federal appeals court struck down a North Carolina voter ID law whose provisions “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Earlier this year, Native American tribes in North Dakota successfully challenged a highly restrictive identification law that disproportionately affected residents of tribal lands. But as the US House Oversight Committee’s recent investigation shows, the practice of voter suppression targeting voters of color – whether by closing polling stations, limiting early voting, or other means – continues across the country.
The New Threat: Poll “Watchers”
We’ve had the baseless claims of voter fraud before. What we haven’t had for decades, are calls for voters to take matters into their own hands at the polls.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” President Trump declared during the first debate.
We haven’t seen these kinds of calls for decades because between 1981 and 2017, a court-appointed consent decree prevented parties from engaging in ballot security operations.
That decree expired in 2017, and since then thousands have signed up to monitor poll operations hoping to find any semblance of fraud. The trouble is, not only are these volunteers looking for something that doesn’t exist, but their presence can effectively intimidate voters and depress turnout.
As Charles Stewart of the MIT Election Lab explained to the MIT Technology Review, “There are two ways in which the actions of these groups can be effective. One is by their actual physical presence. And the second one is by being worried about them.”
That kind of intimidation is exactly what voting rights advocates are worried about. Voter intimidation is, of course, illegal, but any action to correct it can happen after it’s too late and voters have already been dissuaded from reaching the polls or casting their ballots.
Both parties always employ poll watchers, but as Nick Custodio, a deputy commissioner told the New York Times, they are limited in their capacity, saying,
“Watchers on Election Day are there to observe, and a lot of them will check tally sheets or which voters have shown up to vote so far, but they can’t be intimidating people.”
So What Can You Do to Fight Voter Suppression?
The best way to fight voter suppression is to, in the words of Joe Strummer, know your rights and be prepared. Follow the laws in your state precisely to ensure your vote is counted and your voice is heard.
- If you haven’t voted yet, triple check the voting requirements in your state whether you’re voting in person or by mail.
- Confirm you’re registered to vote or that you have everything you need to register vote, if your state’s deadline hasn’t passed (some states permit same day registration up to and including Election Day).
- Make a plan for when, where, and how you’ll vote using our handy online tool – and if you can, vote early. It takes just a minute to find your polling place, confirm the hours, and decide how you’ll get there and when you’ll go.
- When you go to cast your ballot, make sure you know and follow the rules to the letter – especially when it comes to envelopes, any required signatures, requirements to indicate your vote, and pen color.
- If you’re voting in person, charge and bring your phone as well as a mask, snacks, and a book or magazine in case the lines are long. Be especially sure to have the right voter identification for your state.
- Before you vote, check into poll watcher limits in your state to know who can and can’t request identification and challenge your right to vote.
- If anyone tries to stop you from voting, report it immediately to the non-partisan Election Protection commission by calling 866.OUR.VOTE / 866.687.8683).
Voter suppression is real. Voter fraud is not, not in any real way. The best thing we can do is be ready, know how to vote legally, and then do it either before or on Election Day. Because this election is too important to sit out – and we’ve got to make our voices count.
Ready to make a difference and make your voice heard in this election? Join our email activist list and we’ll keep you posted on how you can help ensure a fair and free election for all Americans.
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