Martin Luther King Jr marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 in protest of attempts by white legislators across the south to prevent African Americans from voting. At the time, black people outnumbered white people in Selma but comprised only 2% of the voting rolls.
Over 50 years later, King’s cousin, Christine Jordan, then 92 years old, showed up at her polling station in Atlanta, Georgia, to vote in the 2018 midterm election, just as she had in elections for the previous 50 years. But she was told there was no record of her voter registration.
“It’s horrible, she held civil rights meetings in her home and they had no record of her,” Jessica Lawrence, her granddaughter, said at the time.
Jordan’s troubles were not unusual. Although America prides itself on holding free and fair elections, and the right to vote is enshrined as the foundational principle of its democracy, there is mounting evidence of systemic attempts to prevent growing numbers of Americans from being able to exercise it.
Until recently, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that the federal government had oversight of changes to voting systems in those US states that had a history of voting discrimination. But that changed six years ago with a supreme court ruling that gutted the law. It meant that those very same states no longer had to get “pre-clearance” from the federal government for legislation affecting elections and voting processes. In other words, the states with the worst history of voting discrimination were free to revert to something like their previous behavior.
The Brennan Center at New York University – the foremost non-partisan organization devoted to voting rights and voting reform – reports that “over the last 20 years, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box – imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls. These efforts, which received a boost when the supreme court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.”
The measures these states have introduced, affecting millions of Americans, are designed to suppress the vote, hence the term “voter suppression”.
Such policies not only endanger the gains of the civil rights era, which ushered in the Voting Rights Act, but they also threaten the notion that the United States is at the forefront of western liberal democracies.
In an interview last year Barack Obama said, “We’re the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting.”
And Carol Anderson, author of One Person No Vote and an adviser on the Guardian’s new voting rights series, wrote in a piece titled Voting While Black that “the recent spate of whites calling 911 on African Americans for barbecuing while black, waiting in Starbucks while black, sleeping at Yale while black ad nauseam has led to a much-needed discussion about the policing of public spaces. Yet, there’s another important public space where blackness has been policed and we have been far too silent about it: the voting booth.
“In 2016, pummeled by voter suppression in more than 30 states, the black voter turnout plummeted by seven percentage points. For the GOP, that was an effective kill rate. For America, it was a lethal assault on democracy.”
This is why today the Guardian is launching The Fight to Vote, a yearlong investigation of the American democratic process and its failures. It will scrutinize compromised electoral systems, give a platform to voices silenced at the polls and reveal how voting suppression is already shaping the 2020 election.
Struggle for the franchise
The struggle for the right to vote in the US has existed as long as the country itself. In 1789, after the ratification of the constitution, suffrage was extended only to white, property-owning men. Following the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, black people were permitted to vote, but after a brief period when black politicians began to win elections, the white majority began to institute restrictions like those that motivated King’s march from Selma.
International comparisons show how voting restrictions are a stain on US democracy. In Australia, voting is compulsory. In Sweden, all voters are automatically registered. Both nations rank high on an “electoral integrity index” produced by academics at Harvard University and the University of Sydney.
Yet rather than being ranked with other major western democracies, the US falls lower down the list alongside countries like Kosovo and Romania.
Of particular concern in the US, said Sarah Repucci, senior director at Freedom House, a thinktank in Washington DC, “are the techniques that target minority (mostly black) voters, instituted by Republican-controlled state governments. Countries that have targeted minority voters include Cameroon, Kosovo – hardly regimes that Americans would consider to be our peers.”
It’s no surprise that the US trails behind other democracies in voter turnout – about 55% of eligible Americans voted in the 2016 elections, compared with around 87% in Belgium and 78% in South Korea.
At every stage of the voting process, Americans face hurdles determined by where they live. Election law is set by partisan state lawmakers and administered, in most places, by secretaries of state, who are partisan officials.
In several Republican-leaning states, the difficulties voters face start with the documents they are required to produce in order to exercise their democratic right. Legislators across the country have tightened the requirements for acceptable forms of identification – this in a country where 7% of Americans do not have photo IDs, and the number is higher among black and Hispanic populations.
In 2016, Wisconsin reinstated strict voter ID laws, ostensibly to fight voter fraud, which experts have repeatedly found to be almost non-existent.
For this reason, in the run-up to the presidential election, a woman named Anita Johnson traversed three counties in the south-east of the state. She was part of an entire industry of activists trying to get people to the polls.
When Johnson, who is an attorney and works with the not-for-profit VoteRiders, made her way through the majority black communities in towns such as Racine and Kenosha, she battled rumors and confusion about what forms of ID people needed to vote. She accompanied them to various government offices to get a driver’s license or helped them find the old address records that they needed to register. It became clear to her that Wisconsin’s policies were discouraging would-be voters.
“I’ve done this all year since the 2018 election – the thing is to not stop,” she said. “There is going to be a lot of confusion during the 2020 election because not everyone pays attention to democracy like I do.”
And not everyone in the state had an activist like Johnson to help them. When Donald Trump eventually won Wisconsin with a 22,000-vote lead, political analysts found that in the city of Milwaukee alone there was a 3% lower turnout, or 41,000 fewer votes cast, than four years before.
“The most serious curtailment to voting rights and turnout in Wisconsin is due to the extreme and restrictive photo voter ID law,” said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause, a non-partisan government accountability group in the state.
The same year, 600,000 people in Texas were estimated to lack the IDs needed to vote under the state’s strict guidelines. Virginia put new restrictions on organizations and not-for-profits that were registering people to vote through drives and campaigns. This year, Tennessee sought to make such groups subject to criminal penalties if they make mistakes.
For many Americans, even finding a voting booth presents a formidable challenge. A report released a few months ago by the the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights organization, revealed that 1,688 polling places have been shut since 2012. These closures have taken place in states with histories of racial discrimination in elections, including 214 precinct closures in Georgia.
As Sean Young, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “our elections officials are supposed to defend and protect our democracy. Instead, many have been aggressively pushing poll closures in communities of color with phony pretexts.”
Ten per cent of Georgia’s counties were left with a single precinct for all voters, with some having to travel miles to cast their votes. Outranking Georgia, Texas had 760 poll closures and Arizona had 320.
These poll closures are a direct result of the changes to the Voting Rights Act in 2013 – previously Georgia was one of nine states that had to get pre-clearance before they shuttered polling stations or made changes to electoral law. That is no longer the case.
And if stricter voter ID laws and the closure of polling booths aren’t sufficient deterrents, there are yet more ways to discourage and suppress the vote. Another method is called a “voter purge”- and it is precisely what happened to Christine Jordan, King’s cousin.
Jordan thought she was registered to vote when she went to the polls. She hadn’t changed her residence or her name. Yet she had still been wiped from the rolls, like 17 million other people in the US between 2016 and 2018, according to the Brennan Center.
“Voter purging” is when officials scrub names from the voter rolls ostensibly to ensure people don’t vote twice and that people who have died or moved get removed from the rolls. These are perfectly legitimate justifications.
Yet it tends to be more common, the Brennan Center reported, in areas and states that previously would have been prevented from making such changes by the Voting Rights Act. Places, that is, with a history of voting discrimination.
And as the Brennan Center reports, “Problems arise when states remove voters who are still eligible to vote. States rely on faulty data that purport to show that a voter has moved to another state.
“Oftentimes, these data get people mixed up. In big states like California and Texas, multiple individuals can have the same name and date of birth, making it hard to be sure that the right voter is being purged when perfect data are unavailable.
One infamous system, the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck System, has been used by dozens of states since it was introduced in 2005 to search for people who are registered in more than one jurisdiction. A 2017 study found that Crosscheck is 99% more likely to purge legitimate rather than inadmissible voters.
The authors of the study stated, “We find that one of Crosscheck’s proposed purging strategies would eliminate about 300 registrations used to cast a seemingly legitimate vote for every one registration used to cast a double vote.”
Weigh up the combined impacts of strict ID laws, poll closures and voter purges and you are still nowhere close to estimating the number of people who are actively deterred from voting in the US. Another approximately 4.7 million Americans are prevented from voting at all. This is the number of convicted felons who have no right to vote, including those incarcerated for grave crimes such as homicide and rape but also encompassing charges including burglary and repeated driving under the influence.
Forty-eight states have some form of felon disenfranchisement, but three states – Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia – disenfranchise people for life. The impacts are disproportionate: one in 13 African Americans have lost their right to vote as a result, compared with one in 56 non-black voters, according to the Sentencing Project.
Jevon Gerrard Stevens, a 42-year-old water treatment plant operator for Miami-Dade county water and sewer department in Florida, was convicted of third-degree grand theft auto in 1998, which resulted in his jailing for three months. He hasn’t been able to vote for 21 years.
“It’s a way for those that are in power to control the less fortunate, and once you become a convicted felon you fall right into that category,” he said.
There are signs, however, of a nationwide change in sentiment. Until recently, Florida had one of the strictest felon disenfranchisement rules in the country. Then, in late 2018, a majority of Floridians voted to return the franchise to felons after they leave prison – to Stevens’ delight.
The move, which has been contested by Republicans, has the potential to restore the vote to 1.4 million people in the state, a not insignificant number considering that the margin between Trump and Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election in Florida was just 1.2 points.
There are numerous other ways politicians and operatives have worked to dilute the power of Americans’ votes.
Many states allow gerrymandering, or the drawing of electoral district lines to favor one party by packing voters from another party into as few districts as possible, leaving them with fewer seats after election day. In a remarkable move in July, the supreme court decided not to offer a ruling, in a 5-4 majority decision, on partisan gerrymandering. It was saying, in effect, that it would not find partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional.
In an excoriating dissent, Elena Kagan and the court’s liberal justices accused the court’s majority of shirking its duty.
“The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.”
It is for all the issues cited here that the Guardian has pledged to put the issue of voting rights at the heart of our 2020 coverage. And we are not alone. There is a growing, if still small, movement of people and organizations that are similarly motivated by the need to return the vote to as many Americans as possible.
Both Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate, and Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s onetime attorney general, have devoted themselves to the issue, while groups like Black Voters Matter and Voto Latino have national strategies to get people to polls.
And some states are choosing to adopt automatic voter registration or same-day registration. “After a decade of passing restrictive voting laws like voter ID, momentum is shifting toward passing small pieces of catch-up legislation to further modernize states’ voting systems,” said Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at the University of West Georgia.
“It’s the pendulum swinging the other way.”
• Greg Palast contributed reporting to this story
• To contact the Guardian’s voting rights team, email email@example.com