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Don't Forget About Voter Suppression
With the most consequential election cycle ever upon us, now's the time for a refreshed discussion on voter suppression efforts, along with an energetic all-hands-on-deck response against it.
Gabriela Hernandez | CLMI Fellow
With, perhaps, the most consequential elections ever just around the corner in 2024 and democracy hanging in the balance (yes, they say that all the time, but this time just might be for real), now is the time for a revived and energetic public discussion on voter suppression. The practice of making it burdensome for people to register to vote, all while limiting voting places, times and creating stringent voter ID laws has been around longer than certain groups of citizens finally received the full right to vote unencumbered after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Still, despite its longstanding footprint on the American political tradition, creating stricter anti-voting processes and repressive voter identification laws restricts specific communities from having their voice heard, thereby exposing the ugliness of American history. The struggle to navigate through these onerous restrictions requires heavy lifting and too much work, the weight of which falls especially heavy on historically victimized communities and younger voters.
Voting should be, fundamentally, as easy as creating a new email or opening a social media account. And yet, it isn’t.
Subtle Ways to Subvert
As the 2024 presidential election nears, voter suppression - the deliberate partisan and rather racist act of removing voters from participation - remains strong, just in fresh and more subtle ways. These aren’t random barriers. There is substantial evidence tracking Republican-led efforts to keep voters of color and low-income voters from casting their ballots. That process accelerated with the Supreme Court’s evisceration of a central component of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. That decision removed the requirement for jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in voting to obtain federal approval for new voting policies, a process called “pre-clearance.”
Without this guardrail, voters lost a bulwark against discriminatory voting policies, and states previously subject to pre-clearance were free to implement discriminatory restrictions on voting access without advance checks. As the discriminatory floodgates re-opened, many states did exactly that. Since then these are all the states that have enhanced restrictive voting laws from 2013 to 2023 …
That’s actually a substantial increase from the number of states that were subjected to pre-clearance before the Shelby ruling, which shows us how dramatically voter suppression and the denial of democracy have expanded nationwide from what was mostly contained in the South …
We’re now seeing about 29 states passing nearly 100 anti-voting laws - that’s 58 percent of all states in the United States. With more states becoming more restrictive in keeping their minority citizens from casting their ballots, eligible voters are barred from casting their votes.
Since 2020, 19 states have passed laws making it harder for voters to apply for, receive, or cast mail-in ballots, according to both the Brennan Center and the Voting Rights Lab. The political and partisan organization responsible for this, the Republican Party, is actively limiting the number of primarily non-White and low-income people who want to vote but now can't because of these restrictions. That’s happening at a time when the 2020 election, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, dramatically altered the way we all participated in elections: As a result, nearly 70 percent of the ballots case in that election were cast before Election Day through some form of mail option. Secure ballot boxes, as the Center for Public Integrity described it, were a “… sturdy, metallic symbol of increased voter access amid a pandemic. Absentee and mail voting surged across the country, and voters used drop boxes to return 41 percent of those ballots.” These options drew us closer to an easier way than the traditional way of going to your local polling station. That trend scared certain political actors who were afraid of either losing power or, because of the growth of Black, Brown and other populations of color, not being able to capture power at all. Somehow we keep getting farther away from the goal of making it easy for Americans to vote. That’s not only a voter suppression strategy by itself, but it emotionally targets citizens by discouraging them from voting and undertstanding their duties as citizens.
It’s Not Getting Any Easier
It continues to get more complicated for voters. Voting should be as easy and accessible as possible - and in some states it is.
But in recent years, more than 400 anti-voter bills have been introduced in 48 states. These bills erect unnecessary barriers for people to register to vote, vote-by-mail, or vote-in-person. Yet, a democracy functions best when all eligible voters can participate and have their voices heard. Suppression efforts range from the seemingly unobstructive, like strict voter ID laws that are designed to depress voter registration, but are falsely painted as shields against “election fraud” that doesn’t exist. Other states have engaged in cuts to early voting, mass purges of voter rolls and systematic disenfranchisement, such as what was recently witnessed in Virginia before its state legislative elections with the purging of over 3,500 voters.
Throughout decades, now centuries, of voter suppression, the overwhelming majority of the victims have been African Americans and people of color. The goal has always been the same: Trying to reduce numbers of people voting or registering to vote by targeting members of a specific non-White racial group. In recent years, it’s been the voter suppression of racial demographic groups, particularly Black voters, that are viewed most closely aligned with the Democratic Party and are strategically present in battleground districts and states.
Or, it’s simply a broader attempt to make sure our collective voices aren't heard. This is just an even bigger reason for us to resist those efforts even louder and to promote a younger generation that takes a stronger lead in electoral action moving forward. Many states with low 2022 youth turnout are notable for their lack of voting access and registration policies. Tennessee (13 percent), Alabama (15 percent), and Oklahoma (15 percent) do not have same-day, automatic, or pre-registration for example. Oklahoma is one of only 10 states in the country without fully online voter registration; Tennessee has a strict photo ID requirement to cast a regular ballot; and Alabama is one of a handful of states that does not offer early, in-person voting. With these restrictions, it’s no surprise when low voter turnout occurs when systems are rigged to push away select groups of voters in favor of others. For example, White voters are much more consistent voters than Black, Hispanic, or Asian Americans because they have greater access to registration and the polls. Compared with the national average of 37 percent of adults age 18 and older who voted in 2018, 2020, and 2022, 43 percent of white citizens who were age-eligible to vote in all three elections did so; just 24 percent did not vote in any of these, compared to higher percentages of those who did not in other racial demographics.
Other states are currently passing restrictive laws: Idaho has banned the use of student IDs as a form of voter identification, and Arkansas has banned ballot drop-off boxes. A recent analysis from CIRCLE’s post-election youth survey found that young people in states without online registration, automatic registration, or same-day registration were more likely to say they missed the deadline to register to vote.
The greatest, most effective counter measure against voter suppression, however, is to vote in mass numbers - or, the type of voting behavior that encourages maximum voter turnout. No vote is left behind. It is, therefore, important to understand that not voting is not an option. We can’t make a demand for change, yet not take part in the very first stage of the process necessary to arrive at that change. In addition, Congress should pass the Protect Against Deceptive Election Practices Act along with the the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, and states should also penalize and correct disinformation aimed at preventing voting or voter registration. The efforts to manipulate the electoral system are so pervasive that they could prevent the millions of people from being heard in November. Ensuring voter suppression is a priority issue cuts the risk of that happening.