Making Every Vote Count: Fighting Voter Suppression Following November’s Midterm
As the United States becomes more diverse and Republicans see their grip on maintaining a white nationalist country slip away, they’ve turned to increasingly undemocratic methods and strategies that call us back to Jim Crow in order to maintain their power. Gerrymandering, literacy tests, poll taxes, exact match, closing polling stations, requiring IDs, and disenfranchising the formerly and currently incarcerated are just a handful of ways that elected officials have ensured that black and brown and poor Americans are kept from expressing their rightful political opinions, and continue to be considered second class citizens. If the Left wants to even remotely shape the civic environment of the United States in the coming years, they need to stop playing defense and make sweeping changes to our voting system following November’s midterm elections.
In 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, aiming to finally put an end to rampant discrimination against African-American voters across the country. The Act applied a nationwide ban on the denial of the right to vote based on literacy tests. It also targeted specific areas of the country in which the potential for discrimination was the highest, requiring them to seek approval from the Attorney General or the District Court of Columbia before making any changes affecting voting practices. Further amendments tackled poll taxes, gerrymandering, and language discrimination. The Act was a powerful, federal way to declare that in our democracy, every single person should have an equal opportunity to voice their opinion through vote.
But in 2013, the conservative majority Supreme Court, in Shelby County v Holder, decided that the two most important provisions of the Voting Rights Act — the requirement to attain approval before making changes, and the formula for deciding which localities fell under this provision — were declared unconstitutional, allowing jurisdictions free reign over voting practices for the first time since 1965. Since that decision, there has been widespread closing of polling stations, especially in neighborhoods with minority populations who disproportionately vote Democratic. The vast majority of the jurisdictions once under federal supervision are in states with GOP leadership. Poll closures lead to increased travel time and longer polling lines, hours in some places.
Then this year, following the approval of controversial justice Kavanaugh, just a month before the midterm elections that will determine partisan control of Congress, the Supreme Court decided not to block North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID law, which is likely to disenfranchise thousands of Native Americans. The law requires voters to bring to the polls an ID that displays a current residential street address or other supplemental documentation that provides proof of such an address. The catch? The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t provide residential mail delivery in remote areas, including most reservations, meaning a majority of North Dakota’s Native American tribe members list a P.O. box on their ID. And even further, years of structural and institutional oppression has caused rampant poverty among Native Americans, meaning many will also not have such supplemental documents to provide. That combined with the way the law has been advertised means up to 70,000 residents that lack ID that qualifies could be under the impression that they will not be allowed to vote on November 6.
Even beyond these court regulations, subtle barriers and systems of oppression blocking poor and black and brown Americans from voting have been built into the system for decades, which compounds with no federal oversight to voting practices. The most glaring example is the lack of a national holiday for our voting day, not to mention holding it on a weekday. How many Americans legitimately have the option to take time off from work to go vote? Throw in lack of access to transportation, polling places being far away, lines taking hours, and to the average working American it’s just not feasible. At polling sites, black and brown folks face subtle racism in the way poll volunteers decide that ID’s don’t match or don’t provide a translator to explain any issues. In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who oversees voting practices for the state, refuses to recuse himself in the race for governor against Stacey Abrams, potentially the first black woman in the country to be elected governor. His office has stalled more than 53,000 voter applications, which includes a disproportionately high number of black voters for not having an “exact match” on documentation, and purged over 100,000 more voters for not voting in past elections.
The Republican party is and has been willing to exploit the federal-state divide, and the constitution’s design flaws to maintain power over the American people for as long as possible, especially as the popular vote would have ousted them long ago. Rather than relying on case by case to go through the American court system, which we can see does not work and will not work as long as this system remains, Democrats needs to throw their energy and time into overhauling our electoral system. Following the midterms, they need to reinstate an expanded federal Voting Rights Act that requires oversight for every locality and state’s voting practices. We need to implement automatic voter registration at 18, move election day to a weekend and make it a federal holiday, offer mail in or smartphone votes for those who can’t or don’t want to vote in person, allow the current and formerly incarcerated to vote as elections affect them too, and offer some kind of monetary incentive. Whether we fine those that don’t vote, or offer a tax-credit for those that do, we need to rehabilitate the American understanding of the voting process, and fully incorporate every American into the system so that Congress can eventually start to be the actual representative democracy that we need.