Imagine an America where your vote didn’t count. Imagine an America where you suddenly discovered that you couldn’t vote, that you were ineligible to vote, or that your vote… simply didn’t make it. Welcome to the good ol’ US of A, folks, where your vote’s in danger, especially if you’re a person of color, especially if you’re Black, and especially if you’re Black and poor. It’s called voter suppression, and it’s happening now.
We all want to believe in this most sacred of American rights: that each first Tuesday in November, we step up to the secret ballot box, we check off our choices, and we choose our elected officials. We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, pick our own government officials. And as The Declaration of Independence so famously says (so famously they repeat it over and over in the musical Hamilton): We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. My vote counts as much as your vote, regardless of color or creed or poverty line. We are all created equal.
Except some people don’t want us all created equal.
What’s Voter Suppression?
Voter suppression means denying eligible voters the right to vote through both legal and illegal means using laws, bureaucratic red tape, and varying tactics, according to Demand the Vote. Voter suppression, they also say, has been pushed through by Republicans, and has disproportionately affected people of color and women— groups who tend to vote for Democrats. It also affects “students, elderly, disabled, and low-income or houseless voters.” Demand the Vote notes that all of these groups tend to vote Democrat.
Some of the common tactics politicians use to pass laws which suppress or restrict people’s right to vote have to do with curbing voter fraud. However, as nonpartisan law and policy institute The Brennan Center points out, voter fraud is by and large very, very rare. Extensive research has shown that no, millions of people did not vote illegally in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Cases of voter impersonation are “virtually nonexistent,” and mail ballots are a secure way to hold an election: an important fact to keep in mind during this pandemic, when voter suppression could be rampant.
Voter Suppression Tactic Number One: Voter ID Laws
It sounds pretty innocent on the surface: in order to vote, you have to produce ID. We have to produce and ID to do a lot of things, so most of us don’t think anything of it.
That’s because we’re privileged white people.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states have a strict photo ID law. Meaning: you don’t show up with a photo ID, you don’t vote. Period. In three more states, you can vote with a non-photo ID. 26 other states have byzantine laws and procedures about IDs: some require photo IDs but allow you to cast a provisional ballot; some allow a non-photo ID but someone at the polling station can vouch for you… the list goes on. It’s hard to parse out, confusing, and really requires a lawyer to untangle which states require what. Talk about voter suppression.
But here’s the problem. 1 in 10 Americans, according to the ACLU, don’t have any government-issued photo ID at all. So if they live in a state that requires a photo ID to vote, they’re disenfranchised (meaning, they can’t vote) by default: a victim of voter suppression. If they’re Black, that number skyrockets: one in four Black Americans do not have a government-issued photo ID.
So take an example of voter suppression in my so-called great state of South Carolina. You have to have a “reasonable impediment” for a lack of a photo ID in order to vote without one (and you still need a non-photo form of ID). You can cast a provisional ballot if you sign an affidavit saying that you have an impediment to obtaining a photo ID. There are several different impediments listed; you would have to trust that a judge found these impediments reasonable. Good luck about those being reasonable if you’re Black. And good luck knowing all this, which is buried in a table at the bottom of an ACLU website and written in confusing legalese that they’ve clearly tried to make as comprehensible as possible.
As of 2020 in South Carolina, according to the ACLU, 81,938 minority voters lack government-issued ID.
In general, minority voters are 20% less likely to have photo ID than white voters, and 15% of Americans who make less than $35,000 a year don’t have a government-issued photo ID.
Another Voter Suppression Tactic: Purging Voter Rolls
Scarily, there are computer programs that can pull you off the voter rolls. Demand the Vote notes that the ACLU successfully sued the Kansas Secretary of State for voter suppression. He created a program called CROSSCHECK, which was supposed to check voter rolls in different states, compare them, and pull out duplicate people. Sounds good? It pulled 200 false positives for every correct voter. Another program called “Use it Or Lose It” used in Georgia and Ohio takes away your right to vote if you don’t use it.
Basically, if you haven’t voted in a while, don’t bother. Talk about voter suppression.
Complicate Mail-In Voting and Change Polling Places
Trump has been railing against mail-in voting for months, falsely claiming that it’s a fraudulent process … during a pandemic, when people don’t want to stand in line with other people. This will disproportionately affect Black and elderly voters, who are more at risk of getting sicker from COVID-19. Additionally, there is speculation about Trump’s efforts to slow down the Post Office, which would make people’s ballots late, and hence wouldn’t let them be counted (and would also undermine everyone’s trust in the mail and make them less likely to vote in the first place). Rules for absentee ballots can be so complicated that votes aren’t counted; in 2016, The Atlantic reports that 300,000 votes were thrown out. They say we could see up to 1,000,000 gone in 2020. That’s not preventing voter fraud. That’s voter suppression.
And guess who’s more likely to have their mail-in vote rejected? Black and Latino voters, according to a study by the ACLU.
People had to wait in long, long lines in some places during the primaries this year— up to five hours in some places, according to The Atlantic. Dozens of states have cut the number of polling places, meaning that there are less places to vote, and voters will face longer lines… in the middle of a pandemic. This couldn’t have happened before, when places with a history of voter suppression of people of color could be blocked by the federal government from changing polling places if it could have a negative impact on those particular voters. But now, Black voters in particular face longer rides to polling places.
Voter Suppression Is Real.
This is happening. This is real. But we can take action against voter suppression.
- Register to vote. Do it now. You can find out how here.
- Learn your state’s voting laws about absentee balloting if you plan to mail your ballot. Here are the rules.
- Know the location of your polling place if you plan to vote in person.
- Know the rules for voting in person. You can find your state’s voter ID requirements here. Don’t wait in line with a mask for hours only to find you don’t have the proper identification.
- Spread the good word among your friends and relatives. Facebook posts and stories, Instagram posts and stories, and tweets go a long way to getting out the vote and making sure people know the rules they need to follow. Don’t let your friends make mistakes!
- You can help register voters and remind them to vote, even while socially distanced, with organizations like Rock the Vote, When We All Vote, and The American Bar Association.
- Offer rides to anyone who may be having trouble getting to a polling place if necessary.
Do your part. They’re filing lawsuits and working on voter suppression. But the vote belongs to the people. It’s time to take it back.
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