Recent elections at the state level have yielded some hard-earned wins for progressives. Candidates like Stacey Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the four Democratic Socialists of America–backed candidates who won state legislative primary races in Pennsylvania represent a new generation of leaders who will shape politics on the left in the next decade. But these candidates and mainstream Democrats alike will face an uphill challenge in November, as they did in 2016, due to persistent, effective Republican-led efforts to suppress voter turnout among the poor, people of color, and younger voters.
Two recent events reveal the extent to which the playing field is being tilted—and how hard it will be to reverse this process. On June 11, in Husted v. Randolph Institute, the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s mass purges of what it casually and sweepingly defines as “inactive” voters. The decision was in keeping with the courts’ tendency to view registration and voting as an individual burden rather than a public good, and therefore came as little surprise. But this does not make it any less damaging to U.S. democracy.
While that case received ample attention, few noticed that a “random printing error” left 118,000 legally registered voters unregistered for the June 5 primary in Los Angeles County. Perhaps the error truly was random, as the county claimed. Regardless, its effect was the same as an intentional purge: people who had taken the proper and increasingly onerous steps to register were treated as unregistered, and many left their polling places without being able to vote.
The right has succeeded in forcing candidates in the center and left to devote considerable time and resources simply to ensuring that their supporters will be allowed to vote. By necessity, Democratic campaigning is now at least as much about the practicalities of voting—how to register, how to request absentee ballots, how to find polling places, how to confirm the validity of an existing registration, how to help a disenfranchised ex-felon apply for reinstatement, and so on—as it is about the candidate and ideas they’re running on.
Republicans believe unconditionally that higher turnout among the young, the poor, and people of color is damaging to their efforts to stay in power. They’re right, and their campaign to keep these voters away from the polls is not new—it just involves new methods. Ways to keep the poor, African Americans, Latinos, and other “undesirables” from the polls have gotten more sophisticated, more disingenuous, and harder to combat.
In the short term, progressives and liberals have little hope of overturning these measures wholesale. The social and economic inequalities that make them possible are simply too entrenched. But there are a number of important steps we can take to mitigate them, while hopefully paving the way toward a broader restoration of voting rights—namely, by electing people at the state and local levels who reject policies clearly aimed at disenfranchising specific demographic groups.
To that end, the following is an overview of the many manifestations of voter suppression we are likely to see as the 2018 election cycle begins in earnest, along with potential means of fighting back.
Ways to suppress the vote are legion. This is intended only as an overview of some common methods, which include:
- Voter ID Requirements
- Reduction in State Services
- Selective Access to Early Voting
- Reduced Early Voting
- Cumbersome Information and Access
- Purging Inactive Voter Registrations
- Unreasonably Strict Matching Requirements
- Insufficient, Closed, or Underequipped Polling Stations
- Moving Polling Locations
- Deadlines for Registration or Absentee Ballot Requests
- Felon Disenfranchisement
Again, there are many more. Structural changes like race-based gerrymandering or imposing at-large elections to deny local representation to minority neighborhoods have the practical impact of suppressing the vote. Those topics, especially gerrymandering (on which the Supreme Court issued two more decisions on Monday), can fill volumes.
One could list many more, nonpartisan structural factors depressing participation in U.S. elections as well. Elections are on a weekday, not a weekend. Elections are frequent and sometimes irregular. Registration is overwhelmingly the burden of the citizen, not the state. The number of viable candidates in any race is often minimal, partly as a result of the limitations imposed by first-past-the-post rules in a two-party system. Convenience voting methods like mail-in balloting and early voting vary in availability by location. Americans are exhorted to vote from the earliest ages, as a vital civic duty, yet nothing about the way voting is done suggests that the rhetoric is sincere.
For brevity, I have limited the current summary to methods specifically dealing with access to and the mechanics of voting. Let’s dive in.
Voter ID Requirements are the most visible and widespread form of voter suppression we have witnessed in the past decade. They have been passed in many states in response to the nonexistent problem of in-person voter impersonation or double-voting. Numerous studies have demonstrated that Voter ID requirements suppress black and Latino votes (see for example Hajnal et al 2017), and courts have tended to agree.
It is important to note that although voter ID laws are now common, most state laws do not have strict requirements. Nine states—Kansas, Wisconsin, Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, and Arizona—will not allow an individual to vote without an approved ID. In every other state, a voter may establish their identity with something other than a government Photo ID; an affidavit of identity is often sufficient. Be ready to provide citizens with information on acceptable forms of ID as well as alternatives if no ID is obtained. If resources permit, organize vanpools to take voters to state offices where ID can be obtained; African-American churches and community groups are already doing this. Anyone with a car can be a part of the solution.
Additionally, absentee voting can be done in some states without showing identification. This is an appealing alternative to election-day polling places for voters already registered.
Reduction in state services is a corollary to Voter ID laws. When Alabama, for example, was required to offer a free alternative to a driver’s license, it responded by closing Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices in areas with large black populations. The resulting burden—of procuring ID outside of one’s own county—is plainly racist and unfair, but courts have been slow to respond, so overcoming this burden falls upon voters and activists. Many organizations offer kits and information guides for organizing voter registration drives. Part of this effort must include helping citizens without the required identification obtain it. States with strict photo identification laws must offer at least one form of ID at no cost to the voter; the Supreme Court ruled in Crawford v. Marion County (2008) that failure to do so would constitute a poll tax. But offering a free option has not changed many of the basic burdens of time, transportation, and information that Voter ID laws impose. Reaching out to religious organizations in the community has been an effective means of amplifying voter registration information in black and Latino communities, and religious groups often have transportation networks in place already.
Selective access to early voting: The following, from IndyStar, is a graphic of early voting locations in the Indianapolis metro area in 2016:
Indianapolis, with most of the area’s black and Latino voters, is at the center in Marion County, with just one early voting site. No complex analysis is necessary to understand the pattern or intent here—early voting is less available where African-Americans, Latinos, and “blue” voters in general are found. In suburban, largely white-collar counties, there was no difficulty in offering a number of early voting locations in 2016. Happily, activists and concerned state and local elected officials succeeded in affecting a change in Indiana’s policies to ensure broader distribution of early voting centers. Less happily, those changes will not be fully implemented until 2019.
Early voting is an especially convenient alternative for hourly workers with inflexible schedules or people without regular transportation. Where it is limited, seek alternatives like requesting an absentee ballot. As explained below, even many states that impose restrictions on requesting absentee ballots have reasonable workarounds.
Reduced early voting is similarly effective at suppressing the vote. The hours and range of dates for which early voting is available has been cut to the bare minimum by Republican state legislatures in many places. Every state has a different deadline for the opening and closing of early voting. Furthermore, changing hours of availability and deadlines is a potent means of confusing voters about their options. Fifty-state lists are available, although in some states local variations exist. The use of calendar tricks is common; in Arizona, early voting ends on the Friday prior to the election. Thus on Saturday and Sunday of the final weekend before the election, when voters might reasonably plan on submitting their ballot, early voting is unavailable. On June 16, the North Carolina legislature voted to change the hours and dates of early voting for this November. Like Arizona, it has eliminated early voting on the Saturday prior to the election. The clear purpose of constantly altering the schedule and eliminating dates on which high early-voting turnout might be expected is to confuse and discourage voters.
Cumbersome access to information is a government-wide problem. Websites for state election agencies and local governments range from bad to terrible, making basic access to information frustrating. Almost no such websites are optimized for mobile devices—think frames, NetScape Navigator, and GeoCities. Fortunately, nongovernmental organizations maintain more useful websites. The League of Women Voters maintains Vote411.org with an address-based tool for polling locations. Bad, dated websites reflect a lack of investment in public services as well as a lack of enthusiasm for making information about voting and elections user-friendly.
Purging inactive voter registrations is a popular technique, the scope of which exceeds this overview. Ari Berman and Pema Levy have written more than a dozen pieces on purging (also known as caging) in Mother Jones. Purging was one of the primary goals of Trump’s disbanded “Electoral Integrity” commission, run by the spectacularly dishonest and corrupt Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The recent Supreme Court decision supporting Ohio’s purge of “inactives” will embolden other states’ efforts along these lines.
Purging is a ham-fisted means of throwing registered voters off the books. There can be legitimate reasons for purging, but in practice it is used to de-register large portions of the electorate. A recent study demonstrates that millions of registrations at risk of being purged are of active, properly registered voters. People with common names or similar names and the same date of birth are often flagged as double registrants. The measure that the Supreme Court recently approved in Ohio—striking voters who fail to vote in consecutive elections, even if properly registered—is even more extreme.
The effort to purge voters is ongoing, widespread, and aggressive. In the short term, there is no good solution. Candidates relying on support from younger, less affluent, mobile populations will simply have to redouble their already disproportionate efforts to register and inform voters.
Similarly, unreasonably strict matching requirements target black, Latino, and recent immigrant voters by exploiting minor typographical differences in state records. Donald D. Duck and Donald D Duck would be struck from the rolls under such a regime. Minor inconsistencies with accent marks or surnames are flagged as errors—Pérez vs. Perez or Diaz de Hidalgo vs. Diaz. After public outcry and pressure, Georgia was forced in 2017 to backtrack on purging almost 600,000 registrants under such requirements. CrossCheck, the interstate database system aggressively promoted by Kris Kobach and currently in use in more than two-dozen states, is based almost entirely around exploiting such “errors.” People with hyphenated surnames, uncommon or uncommonly spelled names, and names with punctuation uncommon in American English are targeted effectively by this process. Who is being targeted by CrossCheck and similar systems is patently obvious.
Insufficient, closed, or underequipped polling stations are crude methods of making election-day voting more time consuming. Long lines from equipment malfunction or insufficient equipment were identified as a significant factor in vote suppression in 2016. Observers correctly identified “insanely long lines” in 2016 as a direct result of Republican lawmakers closing nearly 900 polling stations between 2012 and 2016.
If time permits, consider volunteering as a poll worker. Encourage voters not to leave a polling place without having cast a ballot unless ordered to do so by a uniformed law enforcement officer and, whenever possible, to demand backup paper ballots in jurisdictions with broken or insufficient electronic equipment. (If any voter is removed from a polling place, document the removal with video as long as it is safe to do so.)
Changing locations of polling places is an effort to confuse voters who have been going to the same location for multiple elections. State boards of elections send updates to voters when a location changes, but voters regularly lose, forget, or do not notice these unremarkable pieces of mail. Encourage registered voters to double-check polling locations online, and stress that a voter who shows up to the wrong location should demand a provisional ballot. In any jurisdiction, a provisional ballot is the right of any registered voter even if he or she presents at the wrong polling station. These ballots are then counted once states verify that the voter did not vote in another location.
Deadlines for absentee ballot requests and registration vary by location. Election-day registration has a demonstrated positive effect on voter turnout. In most states, however, it is unavailable for a variety of unconvincing and discriminatory reasons. Some states persist in cutting off registration as much as four weeks prior to the election. Requests for absentee ballots are subject to different deadlines than voter registration in most states. Little can be done about these deadlines in the short term except to get informed, raise awareness, and organize around them. They are confusing by design.
Felon disenfranchisement is an enormous problem affecting almost every state, although not all policies are equally onerous. African-American men are wildly overrepresented in lists of ineligible felons, followed by Latino men and all women of color. Florida has a ballot measure up in November to alter its draconian process for regaining voting rights. In other states, like Virginia and New Jersey, similar initiatives have taken the form of executive orders or proposed legislation. Hopefully, these efforts will trigger more in other states.
The fight for the restoration of voting rights for felons must be at the top of social and economic justice movements’ agenda in the near future. When engaging in voter registration activities, always carry paperwork and information for the process of restoring post-conviction voting rights in your state. Never give summary information and assume the voter will follow up later.
At a broader level, look into what campaigns exist in your area to restore voting rights to felons. If possible, coordinate with the local ACLU or other criminal justice advocates to determine if a state or local ballot initiative could work in your community.
Debt is a new frontier for voter suppression. It is common knowledge that state and local governments use cascading systems of fines, court costs, and civil penalties to rack up insurmountable debts against people—inevitably poor, often black, Latino, Native American, or recently immigrated to the United States—who are unlikely to ever fully repay them. In nine states now, in addition to felon disenfranchisement, citizens are barred from getting back their right to vote until all court costs, fines, and other forms of debt to the state are repaid. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has written and collected extensive data on the targeting of communities of color and the poor with the “fines and fees” regime. Be vigilant against any efforts in your community to tie voting rights to the ability to pay the state.
In the short term, there is no solution to the underlying problems that cause voter suppression. There are no realistic proposals on the table for overcoming deeply ingrained institutional and popular racism, the amorality of win-at-any-cost partisan lawmaking, and the basic inevitability of ballot access being unequal in an unequal society. Readers already know that wresting control of state legislatures from Republicans and their enablers is an important step in restoring some minimal semblance of fairness to registering, voting, and counting ballots.
I believe that one of the best weapons against the logistical tricks designed to make voting less convenient, more confusing, and more time-consuming is often available but underutilized: the absentee ballot. This is no panacea. However, it offers immediate relief against some of the forces being brought to bear against communities of color and the poor.
When making face-to-face contact with voters, if they are already registered, suggest that they make an absentee ballot request. If you have access to a phone or tablet for this purpose, it can be done in barely a minute in some states. Alternately, carry paper forms and show the voter how to fill them out on the spot.
Requesting a ballot by mail eliminates a number of the issues raised here: understaffed or insufficient polling locations, polling location changes, limited access to early voting, and more. If you can register a voter, you can also request an absentee ballot for him or her in most jurisdictions. Twenty-seven states, as well as D.C., offer no-questions-asked absentee ballots to any registered voter. In many of the remaining states, the list of acceptable reasons for requesting a ballot by mail is long. Indiana, for example, offers eleven reasons, including inability to get transportation to the polls and being scheduled for work during polling hours.
Information feels like a weak weapon in the face of a concerted political effort to disenfranchise voters based on their race. And it is. The political forces behind the regime of voter suppression under the guise of preventing “fraud” have the upper hand. Republicans control the majority of state legislatures, many governors’ mansions, and many state court systems.
Nothing less than a total commitment to registering voters, disseminating information about circumventing and defeating suppressive policies, and skinning one’s knuckles knocking on doors will be enough. We cannot tweet this problem away—only time, sweat, and in-person activism will work. But anyone can contribute positively, even if time and resources are limited. Consider #PostcardsToVoters, which can be done by individuals in just a few minutes at a time or, better yet, as an organized social activity. Personalized appeals have a strong positive impact; research shows that one-on-one contact, rather than by broad junk-mail appeals to Everyone, effectively boosts turnout.
The Longer View
Looking further into the future, progressives need a broad strategy to restore and expand voting rights for all Americans, in addition to the immediate practical measures listed here. Of course, any strategy to boost turnout will ultimately have to address much more than the mechanics of voting. It’s not just lack of efficacy but a broader sense of disenfranchisement that keeps many citizens away from the voting booth; on average, at least a quarter of all potential voters decline to vote even if access is not a barrier. A smart Democratic party might spend less time trying to win converts from the GOP and instead doing more to address the issues of economic, social, and racial inequality that many potential voters on the left feel are not addressed—adequately, or at all—by the candidates on offer.
Still, removing institutional and legal hurdles is an important step. If Democrats retake Congress and/or the presidency in the coming years, there are a several measures they could take to advance this goal.
The first would be to make election day a federal holiday. Curiously absent from the thousands of words published on voting access in recent years is the abandonment of election day as a de facto holiday in the United States. Until the practice tapered off in the 1980s, public institutions like schools and banks closed and employers granted half or full-day leave to employees. (Today, a few still do.) The purpose was not only to encourage voting but also to enable other forms of participation in the election process like serving as election judges, poll watchers, or ground volunteers for their local party or candidate. Now, time off on election day is just one more “luxury” the American worker no longer enjoys.
Automatic voter registration, already being implemented in a small but growing number of places, is another positive measure. This and other technocratic solutions, though, still miss vulnerable populations that move frequently, do not have fixed addresses, or are reluctant to interact with state and local government for fear of repercussions. Election-day registration (EDR), now available in more than one-third of states, makes more sense. By eliminating registration as a process separate from voting, EDR has been demonstrated in several studies to boost turnout by around 5 percent.
It’s important to remember that the current wave of voter-suppression tactics that began with the emergence of Voter ID laws during the George W. Bush years is only the most recent failing of the idea of one person, one vote in the United States. The history of disenfranchisement based on gender, race, religion, wealth and more would require the length of several books to cover with justice. But the basic lesson is that there simply is no tradition in the United States of opening wide the door to the voting booth; structurally, nothing about the way American elections are carried out is conducive to maximizing participation. Over time, every effort to make voting more accessible has been contested, and often defeated, by the dominant political faction that felt threatened by the expanded franchise.
It is not a fair fight. Motivated state legislators can throw obstacles at voters faster than activists can respond. And yet, for all the system’s intransigence, for every moment of backlash, history shows that the franchise can continue to be expanded—and must. Every campaign, every community group, every lone activist, can make a difference. It begins with recognizing that the threat to voting rights today is real. State by state, Republicans have been alarmingly effective over the past decade at suppressing voter turnout among the poor, the young, and people of color. But with dedication, these modern modes of voter suppression, too, can be overcome.
Edward Burmila is an assistant professor at Bradley University. He lives in Chicago and blogs politics at Gin and Tacos.