By: Rithiga Rahulotchanan
Long voting queues on election day are typically associated with high voter turnout; however, it is often a symptom of voter suppression, a dangerous mechanism threatening the civic rights of millions of Americans.
Voter suppression is defined as the attempt to depress participation of voters to influence the outcome an election. The term is used to describe when a party or individual takes steps to deliberately reduce access to the ballot, usually targeting specific sections of society.
During the 19th century, the US Government implemented a series of overt barriers intended to prevent African Americans and other minority groups from casting their ballot. These included poll taxes and literacy tests, which were only ended by the Voting Rights Act in 1970.
Voter suppression has not disappeared in the last decade; instead, it is now expressed through more nuanced barriers outlined below:
Leading up to the November election, Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee recruited nearly 50,000 poll watchers as an intimidation tactic to reduce voter turnout. The Trump campaign distributed carefully lawyered training videos to prospective poll watchers, outlining how watchers should challenge ballots and the eligibility of voters. Previously, the Republican National Committee had been barred from being allowed to participate in poll watching, after the party undertook an operation to intimidate New Jersey voters in 1981. In 2018, the courts lifted the consent decree that barred the committee.
A recent investigation by VICE News found that 21,000 Election Day polling places were eliminated going into the 2020 election, which could disproportionately affect poor, young and non-white voters. A study from the Brennan Center for Justice found that in the 2018 midterms, Latinos voting in person on Election Day waited in line almost 46% longer on average than white voters, and Black voters waited 45% longer. With a significantly lower number of polling places and a nationwide shortage of poll workers due to the pandemic, it is likely that the BIPoC and wage workers were disproportionately affected.
In many states, legislation and voting policies have come under scrutiny due to their overly restrictive nature. There are currently over 300 lawsuits in 44 states concerning how absentee votes are counted, who can vote early and how mail-in ballots are collected.
In Pennsylvania, the state supreme court ruled that ballots mailed in without a secrecy envelope to conceal the voter’s identity would be declared invalid. This decision was issued shortly before the election, causing concern that significant numbers of "naked ballots" would be thrown away.
Before coronavirus, many states required individuals to get their mail-in ballot signed by a notary or witnesses. Since the pandemic, many states have eased restrictions; however, some still remain, restricting the voting access to a significant percentage of eligible voters.
Most states also restrict the voting rights of criminals who have been convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to prison. Some states automatically restore voting rights after the sentence is served, while others wait until after probation and parole is served, and after all fines have been paid. In 2018, Florida restored the voting rights of 1.5 million non-violent felons. The state then amended the law to say that felons must prove they have paid all fines and fees before they vote. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg donated $16 million to help pay the fines and fees of 32,000 Black and Hispanic former felons. His donation prompted the state's Republican attorney general to ask the FBI to investigate it for "potential violations of election law”.
In 35 states, voters must show some sort of ID at the poll. While some allow a written affidavit if an ID is missing, a number of states, such as Wisconsin, Texas, Kansas, and Georgia, do not. It is often assumed that everybody has an ID, however, this is far from the truth. Voter-ID laws have also proven to restrict those who are in possession of ID but said ID does not meet the constantly changing ID requirements. This often affects Native Americans the hardest, demonstrating the extent of disenfranchisement caused by voter suppression. Such ID laws emerged in the last decade as part of a wider push by Republican legislatures to reduce voter fraud. However, no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the US has emerged. In fact, a commission launched by the Trump administration to look into the 2016 election was disbanded without publishing a report.
Purging voter rolls
In recent years, states have begun to make an aggressive effort to remove people from their voter rolls. The Brennan Center for Justice has found that at least 17 million voters were purged from voter rolls nationwide between 2016 and 2018.
In 2019, a conservative advocacy group convinced a circuit court judge to order the state to remove more than 230,000 people removed from Wisconsin’s voter rolls because they had not responded within 30 days to a letter identifying them as someone who may have moved. More than half of the voters at risk of being purged lived in areas that favoured Clinton over Trump in 2016. The case is currently being heard before Wisconsin's top court and 130,000 names are at risk of being purged. The law in question disproportionately affects young, poor and minority voters who may not have stable housing illustrating another example of voter suppression in the US. One of Trump’s re-election advisers was caught on tape telling a Wisconsin Republicans that the party has “traditionally” relied on voter suppression.
Fearmongering over the security of ballots
In the months leading up to the election, Trump stoked fears over the security of ballots through repeated reference to voter fraud. However, according to The Hill, fraudulent votes amount to less than 0.1% of ballots cast over the last few decades. Trump’s speculation about the legitimacy of absentee ballots could be interpreted as his attempt to lay the groundwork to contest the election on the basis that absentee votes lack legitimacy.
Case study: Georgia
In 2018, Republican Brian Kemp used voter suppression to win the Governor race against Stacey Abrams, the first African American female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the US. In response, she filed a lawsuit against the state for “gross negligence” in managing the election and founded Fair Fight, an organisation fighting for free and fair elections. Abrams organised and mobilised an army of voters to break the Republican Party's lock on state politics and create a government reflective of the new Georgia. Abrams’ strategy of expanding an existing coalition saw the registration of more than 800,000 voters across Georgia from 2018 to 2020. The presidential election saw Georgia turn blue after 28 years as the state voted for the first presidential nominee of the Democratic party since 1992. Georgia’s increased voter turnout serves as an important reminder of the level at which voter suppression impacts the US voting engagement and the consequential impact on election outcomes.
The methods of voter suppression outlined above are just a few of the techniques which have been identified by experts in recent years. As they did when they were first established during America’s very first elections, these techniques target the BIPoC, the poor, and disabled communities whose interests would be better protected by a president from the Democratic party. Although we recently saw the victory of Biden’s presidential campaign, voter suppression continues to threaten America’s democracy.