Every time a vote is compromised, democracy is compromised. And democracy only works effectively if elections represent the will, values, and visions of the people within it.
While many laws have been passed to protect the rights of voters, other laws have murkier intents. They may have the guise of “preventing fraud,” but conveniently give an edge to the lawmaker’s interests. And while federal laws make voting easier and more accessible to all, sometimes state laws ironically have the opposite effect.
Be prepared for some slimy tactics nationwide between now and the 2020 presidential election. Because up until now, slimy tactics have helped win elections. But it doesn’t have to continue that way. Together, we can make sure every legitimate vote gets counted.
According to the ACLU, at least 99 bills across 31 states were introduced in 2017 with the purpose of restricting access to registration and voting — and more have surfaced since. If you look at these bills closely, some seem to have interesting ways of selecting which forms of ID are accepted at polls based on who is likely to have them. Students are being especially targeted in states like New Hampshire.
“You can’t have true freedom without the right to vote,” Stacey Abrams said in a Recode by Vox interview earlier this year. (If you’re not familiar with Abrams, she lost the last Georgia governor’s race by a narrow margin to Brian Kemp — an election in which 50,000+ voters reported surprise voting barriers on election day. Voters were purged in masses pre-election. Kemp was the sitting Secretary of State who oversaw the race, meaning he was playing both referee and scorekeeper in a game he was competing in.) Abrams went on to explain that the 3 components of progress are the right to register, the right to access a ballot, and the right to have that ballot counted.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Voter justice is not a left or right issue. It’s an issue of protecting the democracy we hold so dear. It doesn’t just affect Democratic voters or Republican voters. It affects people of all ages in all areas, including military members overseas, the handicapped, the elderly, and the economically disadvantaged.
If you have an ultra-liberal friend whose absentee vote got tossed because it wasn’t processed in time due to a “post office delay,” you should want justice for your friend. If your ultra-conservative elderly neighbor spent a $20 cab ride to go stand in a 3-hour line at the polls, leaning on his cane, only to be turned away because the DMV messed up the “Jr” in his ID, you should want justice for your neighbor.
#1. Get behind #FairFight2020.
The Fair Fight movement was formed by Stacey Abrams following alarming accounts of voter suppression in Georgia’s 2018 governor’s race, but it’s not just about Georgia — #FairFight2020 is a national effort. Voter protection teams will band together to ensure every vote is counted, particularly in swing states that are susceptible to voter suppression and rule manipulation. You can either donate to this cause or volunteer to be part of it. Go to fairfight2020.org for more info.
#2. Demand dependable voting systems.
Reform is happening thanks to recent struggles, but it’s not happening everywhere. Lawmakers are supposed to represent the voice of the people, so make your voice loud. Too many districts are continuing to deal with old, incompetent voting machines that are vulnerable to hacking. (If the machines are even plugged in to begin with.) We all need auditing systems that aren’t prone to human error. A recent recount settlement in Pennsylvania is mandating just this: new voting systems using paper ballots by 2020, followed by automatic audits after every election by 2022 so that accuracy of votes can be determined right away.
#3. Help others register.
Registering to vote can actually be intimidating for many people, especially if they’ve encountered hiccups in the past or it’s their very first time. Some people have the perception that registering involves a long line at the courthouse, or that registering online would compromise their private information.
Consider taking part in or organizing a voter registration event. Before you begin, first understand the voting rules for your state. Determine whether registrants will need to complete a state-specific or a county-specific form. You can typically print out many forms in PDF format with postage prepaid. Make sure that first-time voters always know to bring identification with them to the poll (this is a federal thing).
Be aware of states like Tennessee, though. A new state law requires that if you want to organize a voter drive, you must first undergo training administered by the coordinator of elections — if you don’t, you could be subject to Class A misdemeanor charges. (In other words, you have to undergo ultra-specific “training” in order to offer someone a piece of paper and a pen. And of course there are no clear instructions on the state’s election website as to how you actually pursue this training.)
Be able to explain to registrants how absentee and early voting works in your state, in case they would need to opt for one of these options. (You typically need an excuse to absentee voting but don’t need an excuse for early voting. Note that early voting isn’t offered everywhere.) A lot of people don’t end up at the polls because they’re pressured to stay at work for the full shift, despite most states offering some form of protection for allowing employees to take an extended work break to vote. Often, voting early can mitigate this scenario.
#4. Help others get their documentation in order.
Maybe this means giving a car-less neighbor a ride to the DMV so that they can get the proper photo identification, or guiding someone on how to get a free state or country issued ID (if available in your area).
Most states have some sort of voter ID law currently in effect, but sometimes those laws end up inadvertently make it more challenging for students, the elderly, or people with disabilities to keep an up-to-date ID at all times. Know the specific voter identification laws for your state. Some state’s laws are much stricter than others, and some states may pass new laws shortly before an election, so always err on the cautious side.
#5. Know your voting rights (and how to act if they’re infringed on).
Understand that it’s a civil rights violation if you encounter intimidation, coercion, or threats of any kind when trying to vote. Know that if you are disabled, you’re entitled to accommodations, including private voting booths. You can look up specific rights for your state at Rock the Vote’s website.
If you feel your voting rights have been compromised, don’t hesitate to report it. If it violates federal voting laws, you can file a complaint on the U.S. Department of Justice website, where you can also read about prior cases and what their outcomes were. This includes possible violations related to Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Act, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help America Vote Act. You can also contact your area ACLU affiliate — the ACLU has a national network of staffed offices in every state.
#6. Be aware of new voting restrictions.
Tune in to what’s happening not just in your district or state, but across the nation. You can get info through the Brennan Center for Justice, which lists new restrictions by state. Think critically about the restrictions and about what motivates them. They may have authentically been formed in response to attempts at voter fraud. But if they seem arbitrary or seem to be targeting a certain type of voter, they should set off your internal alarm.
#7. Check your voter registration status.
Start by looking up your state or local election office website, where you should be able to find links to register and to check your status. Show others how to do this or encourage them to do it on their own: after all, sometimes voter registrations are purged without the voter knowing.
Take Ohio, for example. The state has a “use it or lose it” voting policy in which your registration gets dropped if you don’t vote or respond to a notice within two or more federal election cycles. If the state doesn’t have your current address on file, this could mean never receiving a notice, then showing up to the polls only to be rejected.
#8. Understand the value of your vote.
Don’t think of your vote as just a mere grain of sand in a vast beach. That beach wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the individual grains, and they all matter. Your vote is a real, tangible number that you’ll be able to see projected on screen when the tally comes in. If you’re voting on a local or state issue, think about how your vote literally impacts the person standing next to you, or a close family member.
If you’re voting for an office member, consider what it might mean to vote third party. Will it be the best way to vote because it reflects your values, or will it end up contributing to unintended consequences? Like many people, I’m tired of a two-party system because I don’t feel like I can identify fully with modern Democratic or Republican values. So I’m often tempted to vote for a third party. While I used to vote third party at the national level, nowadays I’ll only do so if we adopt an instant run-off election. (In a nutshell, instant run-off allows you to indicate your top choice, secondary choice, etc. Votes are tallied in “rounds” with bottom choices being dropped with each successive round, thereby making it easier to support third-party candidates without risk of backfire.)
#9. Fact check before spreading information.
It can be tempting to pour gas onto a rumor’s wildfire, especially if that information is damaging to a candidate you’re against. But if something seems even a little outrageous, or a quote seems like it could have been taken out of context, validate it before passing it along. Factcheck.org is a great non-partisan resource for putting political claims to the test.
Often, when politicians make misleading statements, they assume that people are too lazy or not resourceful enough to verify those statements. Don’t let that be you. We live in a modern age where it barely takes any time at all to consult an independent source of information for a breakdown of information.
While “yellow journalism” and sensationalist journalism have been around for ages, journalistic integrity has taken a dip in the modern digital age. But there are still plenty of honorable journalists out there. And the beauty of the digital age is that independent journalism can thrive — people no longer have to adhere to a network or news outlet in order for their research and reflections to make a mass impact. But if you are getting your information from a publication, try to assess whether that publication has an inherent bias. The Media Bias Chart is a fascinating project created by a patent attorney in efforts to analyze where news outlets stand on a scale from “extreme left” to “extreme right,”, and it has gone viral since its creation and is even used in classrooms.
#10. Help break down the issues for others.
Encourage others to look past the spin and fear tactics, and to vote based on their visions. It can be extremely difficult to understand how those visions translate to a candidate’s stance, especially when candidates coat their words in order to appeal to the masses. But voting records and in-context quotes say a lot.
Unfortunately, political promises are often broken. Sometimes that promise was empty to begin with, and other times efforts are blocked in congress or through other means. So what types of promises can realistically be carried out? Politifact has been tracking and rating politicians’ promises through easy-to-understand meters with ratings like Kept, Compromised, Stalled, and Broken. Understanding how promises have been met historically can provide insight into which ones may be pulled off in the future.
Brochures, posters, and infographs can be helpful ways to distribute a breakdown of information to others, and these resources can be distributed at voter registration drives and other events. If you’re developing these resources on your own, or if you’re having open discussions about political issues, just be willing to check yourself and make sure you’re not letting personal propaganda slip through. People are smart and will see through it. Plus, you’re not contributing to the principles of democracy unless you’re presenting the truth in a way that lets people come to their own conclusions and make their own informed decisions.
It’s one thing to say, “This is how I feel about the issue, and this is how it affects me and my family.” But don’t try to tell someone, “This is how you should feel about the issue because this is how it will affect you,” because no one wants to be told what to believe — and the reality is you never really know a stranger’s circumstances.