By Whitney Braunstein
Voter fraud. Voter suppression. Gerrymandering.
These are all hot button terms in modern-day political parlance, and are frequently cited as the driving force behind the outcome of elections. Some — like voter suppression and gerrymandering — are widespread and have unfairly shaped the electorate and the process. Others — like voter fraud — are de minimis at most and used as excuses to erect barriers to voting for vulnerable and marginalized populations. The run-up to the November 2018 midterm elections brought with it a rash of blatant incidents of voter suppression targeting voters of color. They also exposed the lie that voter fraud is a more pressing concern than the systematic efforts undertaken to deny the franchise to American citizens.
Most Americans know better. The Pew Research Center released a report last year revealing how political parties shape views about the electoral process: Democrats primarily believe that voter suppression is an issue, while Republicans tend to believe that voter fraud is a significant issue. But overall, Americans saw voter suppression as a larger problem than voter fraud, with good reason. Last November, several states were on the cusp of close, hotly contested elections, from the race for governor in Georgia to the senate elections of North Dakota and Texas. And in these states, voters of color were being disenfranchised as they attempted to make their voices heard.
In Georgia, Stacey Abrams was locked in a battle with Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp for the governorship. Had she won, Abrams would be the first Black woman elected governor of a state in American history. Kemp, by contrast, is a self-described “politically incorrect conservative” backed by Trump. In his role as Secretary of State, he was also responsible for overseeing the state’s election procedures. In the following months it came to light that more than 50,000 voters’ registration applications were on hold due to an “Exact Match” law, which flags voters whose voter registration information differed from other state identifications.
Exact Match is not the only source of voter suppression in Georgia. In October 2018, a non-partisan group called Black Voters Matter attempted to drive forty Black senior citizens in Jefferson County, Georgia to their polling place to take advantage of Georgia’s early voting policies. County officials, suspecting partisanship and that the group was encouraging the seniors to vote for a particular candidate, stopped the trip. While some of the seniors were able to later drive themselves to the polls, access to polling places is known as one of the largest barriers to voting for Black voters in majority Black Jefferson County and throughout the state. In Randolph County, another rural, majority Black county, county officials proposed removing all but two polling places this summer, undermining access to polls for Black voters. All of this came together to create one of the most contentious gubernatorial races in Georgia history, with Abrams conceding days after the election and careful recounts and the caution that the voter suppression seen in Georgia was a systemic issue, rather than a direct attack on her or her campaign.
Voter suppression is not just limited to the South, and does not target Black voters alone. In North Dakota, a voter ID law was passed in the time between the primary elections and the general elections requiring voters to produce an identification with a current street address in order to exercise their right to vote. This law most heavily curtailed the franchise of the state’s large Native American population, many of whom tend to vote Democrat, and who live on reservations without formal street addresses. County officials in Dodge City, Kansas moved the city’s only polling place from a central downtown location, to a conference center half a mile outside the city limits in a location that is not accessible by sidewalk or regular public transportation. The move threatened the voting rights of the city’s Latinx population, which make up a majority of the city’s residents.
Despite these efforts to suppress the vote, there is hope for a brighter future, provided enough individuals can exercise their rights to drive change. That hope starts with voting itself. Doing so has the potential to expand the franchise and beat back the forces of political exclusion that would otherwise perpetuate inequality and injustice. Despite the challenges to voting created for Native people in North Dakota during these elections, the community responded by voting with historically high turnout. And the possibility of maintaining the momentum of this empowerment is bright. Until last November’s midterm elections in Florida, 1.5 million people were prevented from voting due to past felony convictions; 1 in 5 of those individuals were Black. However in November, more than 60% of Floridians voted to restore those individuals’ rights, granting over one million Floridians the right to vote in elections to come.
Ultimately, efforts like these — that mobilize traditionally marginalized communities and expand the franchise — will improve the health of American democracy and undermine the forces of voter suppression that, have, for far too long, unjustly allowed elected officials to choose their voters.