By Estelle Anderson ‘22
In a statement to The Iris, American politician and voting rights champion Stacey Abrams said, “Throughout our nation’s history, young people have been at the forefront of movements that have pushed America to live up to its highest ideals. Vote to elect leaders who see you, who hear you, and who are willing to act on your demands. Our youth must be aware of the power they possess to reshape the future of this nation through their participation in our democracy. In 2020, we have the opportunity to make a historic change and create a future where everyone, no matter their background, is seen and heard.”
Four million Americans will turn eighteen by this Election Day. After years of accompanying their parents to the polls, they will finally be able to cast their own ballots, an exhilarating reminder of their role in democracy. As Abrams reminds us in her statement, voting is the most essential tool available to an American citizen. Voters, especially young voters, cannot afford to downplay its power, especially in what is one of the most important elections in American history.
However, just as the power of the vote cannot be underestimated, we also cannot underestimate the damage of voter suppression. While floods of new voters cast their ballots this election season, many will be blocked by restrictions meant to lessen the impact of the youth vote. Thousands of Black, Native American, and Latinx voters will be turned away by oppressive voter discrimination laws, such as voter ID policies and poll closures, while the majority of disabled voters in this country will arrive at polls that are inaccessible.
Voting has never been a right in America; it has instead been a privilege. Some of the same politicians who profess their undying love for our country undermine its core democratic values through their thinly-veiled attempts to suppress voters. President Trump is the epitome of this hypocrisy: his self-proclaimed devotion to America is incompatible with his attempt to corrupt democracy through sabotaging mail-in voting.
President Trump’s recent admission to defunding the United States Postal Office has ignited a national conversation about voter suppression. However, in any discussion we have about how voter suppression will impact the 2020 election, we can not just focus on President Trump’s undermining of mail-in voting. We must also put a spotlight on the tactics that politicians have used for decades to suppress voters, which will remain firmly in place this Election Day.
So, what exactly are these tactics?
Voter ID policies, which require voters to present an ID in order to vote, are one of the most egregious forms of voter suppression. Active in 36 states, these policies target Black voters with surgical precision: 25% of voting-age Black Americans lack government-issued ID, compared to 8% of voting-age white Americans. A study by the US Government Accountability Office found that voter ID policies in Kansas and Tennessee resulted in 122,000 fewer voters in the 2012 election, with Black voters most heavily affected. Proponents of voter ID laws claim that the laws help prevent voter fraud. However, countless studies have proven that voter fraud is vanishingly rare. Out of more than 1 billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014, only 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud were found.
Felony disenfranchisement laws, or policies that prevent people with felony convictions from voting, also have a disproportionate effect on Black voters. In Iowa, where citizens with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised, an estimated one out of every four Black men is unable to vote. To ensure that less voters of color can cast their ballots, politicians also use the closure of polling sites: between 2012 and 2018, the governments of Southern states, all with histories of voter discrimination, closed at least 1,688 polling sites. In Texas, the state with the most closures, counties where Black and Latino populations were growing by the largest margins saw the highest number of polls be shut down by officials.
A study from Cornell University revealed that, during the 2016 elections, voters in predominantly Black communities waited 29% longer to vote than voters in predominantly white neighborhoods. Longer wait-times are a consequence of the closure of polling sites: the less sites available to voters, the more voters will head to the few that are open. When voters have to wait longer, they become discouraged from voting. Most people, especially in low-income communities, cannot afford to wait five hours in line to cast their ballot.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Southern states suppressed Black voters by making voters pass literacy tests at the polls, which were impossible for uneducated former slaves. These states also forced voters to pay a tax in order to vote, well aware that the fee was too expensive for many Black voters. Although the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made these discriminatory voting procedures illegal, they have been revived through the voter ID policies, poll closures, and felony disenfranchisement laws that exist today.
While voters of color are a major target of voter discrimination, there is another group that is often left out of conversations about voter suppression: disabled people. Only 40% of polls in the country are wheelchair-accessible, meaning that for voters needing such assistance, including senior citizens with canes or walkers, getting to a polling booth poses a daunting challenge. A study from Rutgers University revealed that if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as the non-disabled, there would have been an additional 2.35 million votes cast in the 2018 midterms.
Young people are also a target of voter suppression in America. Given that young people often lean progressive - in 2018, 67% of young Americans voted Democrat - they are perceived as a threat to the moderate Democrats and conservatives attempting to stay in power. The absentee ballots of young voters are five times more likely to be rejected than those of other voters. In states with strict Voter ID laws, furthermore, seven refuse to accept student IDs as a valid form of identification.
The right to vote should not be reserved for certain Americans and torn from others. This is an understanding that should transcend party lines, an understanding that demands to be at the core of any discussion concerning upcoming presidential, state, and local elections. Until the barriers that voters face at the polls are demolished once and for all, the future that Stacey Abrams spoke of, where everyone’s voice is equally valued, will remain out of reach.
With that, here are five steps that you can take right now to fight for an end to voter suppression in America:
1. Fight to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act
“HEROES Act” is a term that you have likely seen all over the news in recent weeks. This stimulus package would provide $3.6 billion in funding to polling stations for the November election in order to ensure that elections are as safe and efficient as possible. The HEROES Act would require that all states make no-excuse absentee ballots available to voters and expand early voting deadlines. Notably, it would eliminate state requirements for voter IDs, allowing voters to send in their signature with their ballot rather than a photo of their ID.
Call your senator now, at (202) 224-3121, to urge them to pass the HEROES Act and increase the funding it allocates for the 2020 election.
2. Volunteer to be a poll worker
Polls are currently in a crisis. 51% of poll workers are 61 years or older, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority will be staying at home for the upcoming elections. Even if you are under eighteen, you might be able to volunteer as a poll worker in your state. In New York City, you can apply as young as seventeen. Check out workelections.com for more information.
3. Support and donate to voting rights organizations
Fair Fight, Black Voters Matter Fund, and Spread the Vote are just several of the many organizations fighting voter suppression. If you are able, make a donation. With the elections coming up, these organizations need it more than ever. Many are also searching for volunteers to help them with their critical work. Check their websites for more information.
4. Share the Voters’ Right List
The Voters’ Rights List was created by the American Civil Liberties Union to inform voters of what to do when their right to vote is attacked. Share it far and wide, especially close to election dates, to educate others on their rights at the polls.