Warping the Vote

By Emma Shapiro

Tapping their shoes against the pavement, they danced as the glaring sun reflected off their skin. Hymns of freedom and hope escaped from their lips and swelled through the church’s courtyard. With their hats donned and their smiles unwavering, the senior citizens boarded the bus, images of powerful fists rising behind them.

“We were united in black joy,” Co-founder of Black Voters Matter LaTosha Brown said. “We were very excited about sharing and singing with the seniors, and seeing them happy and enjoying themselves was a big deal for us.”

The seniors were getting ready to vote after a day of rallying. Brown said she had already called the county commissioner of Louisville, GA’s office for approval, and she was under the impression that their trip would be smooth. Racing onto the bus, everyone rejoiced in excitement as they waited to leave.

Their joy was short-lived, however. Soon after the seniors had piled onto the bus, the deafening sound of sirens and a brash county officer forced them off and away from the booths. Despite their initial approval, someone had called the county commissioner’s office to prevent the seniors from voting.

“We were shocked at first,” Brown said. “We really couldn’t believe it. There was no reason for us to not take these seniors to vote. We were wondering why the county commission had interfered, who had called, what all that was about.”

Although they never received an explicit explanation for why they were reported, Brown said she believes that the anonymous caller and county commissioner had hoped to suppress their voices.

Voter suppression is a political strategy used to influence an election by limiting or preventing certain people’s votes, according to the New York Times. Common techniques include releasing false information regarding polling times, closing certain polling locations and turning away potential voters to lessen and actively prevent the vote of American citizens, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Limiting access to voting is now known for its impact in the 2000 Presidential election and 2018 Midterm elections, but it has existed since the Reconstruction and peaked during the Jim Crow era, according to the New York Times. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, National Voting Rights Act, the 15th Amendment o counteract the separatism of certain minorities, including senior citizens, college students, African Americans and Native Americans, when it comes to voting. However, currently, over 24 states have introduced 70 different restrictive voting laws, including Kentucky’s bill reducing the time frame of absentee ballots and Oklahoma’s bill that compares the state’s voter registrants to other state and federal databases to identify any potential non-citizens, according to the Brennan Center.

According to the ACLU, at the most recent midterm election, six percent of Americans were turned away at the polls. In 2014-2016, around 16 million voters were removed from the polls, with African Americans being suppressed at a 1.25% higher rate than white Americans, according to americanprogress.org.

Ohio and Georgia have received the most media coverage regarding allegations of voter suppression. During the 2018 Midterm election, state officials from both Georgia and Ohio were held under scrutiny for closing polls that were more accessible to a certain demographic. Although past legislation was made to counteract discriminatory voting procedures, a lack of education on voting policies and voter intimidation tends to alienate the vote of specific demographics, according to the Atlantic. Many Southern states have received complaints regarding the unfair voting procedures, yet little action is effective in preventing voter suppression, according to the ACLU.

In 2016, the Supreme Court heard the case Husted v. A. Randolph Institute, which tried Ohio Secretary of State Jon A. Husted for allegedly violating the National Voting Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of the defendant and ultimately set a precedent for dismissing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the National Voting Rights Act after the presidency of Barack Obama.

Native American citizens have also commonly fallen prey to restrictive voting procedures. Voter ID laws often work to restrict Native Americans’ ability to vote by requiring a residential street address, which reservations lack, North Dakota ACLU Communications Director Janna Farley said. While the law enforces stricter policies, Farley said that these policies make it almost impossible for Native Americans to register and cast their ballot.

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Fighting voter suppression takes a lot of resources, Claremont Graduate University political science professor Jean Schroedel said; however, not all of these resources are used effectively. For example, Schroedel said while media coverage can work as a huge advantage, the current publicity misconstrues the issue by promoting a bipartisan agenda that centers around President Donald Trump’s commission for stricter voting procedures.

“The most notable change that I’ve seen is that increasing numbers of people believe media stories about widespread voter fraud being perpetrated by minority communities,” Schroedel said. “There is no credible evidence of this occurring, but many conservatives believe President Donald Trump and conservative sources that take this line. In the past there were large numbers of Republicans, as well as Democrats, who were supportive of voting rights--look at the votes in Congress to renew the non-permanent provisions of the Voting Rights Act. That consensus is largely gone, and we as a people are worse off due to this.”

The Trump Administration, who presents an anti-voting fraud campaign, causes other party members to heed the initiative and introduce stricter voting procedures. However, these new laws require certain identification that minority groups, including Native Americans, lack and make them ineligible to vote, according to the ACLU.

“One of America’s major political parties is doing everything it can to restrict access to the electoral process,” Farley said. “This is an attack that must be confronted for what it is-a threat to democratic governance that will have the effect of taking away the most basic right of a large number of vulnerable voters of color.”

The majority of allegations are against the Republican party; yet the party itself, along with the country, is divided on Trump’s initiatives, according to the New York Times.

Many party members choose to support all initiatives presented by the Trump Administration, while others, even members of the same party, choose to dismiss the actions as aggressive and irrelevant, including those regarding voter fraud, according to Time Magazine.

Voter suppression purges the vote of millions of Americans, according to Schroedel. With political agents acting in a way that limits the vote of minorities, people’s voices will lessen and they will lose their say in their country, Farley said.

“Empowering every American with the correct information to exercise their right to vote is crucial to a transparent and equal democracy,” Farley said. “We wanted to make sure everyone who didn’t have a residential street address on their ID knew what they had to do in order to vote in November. The Supreme Court’s decision in this instance could be deeply consequential for the country, not just those who live in North Dakota.”

On the other hand, there are states who have made it significantly easier to vote in recent years by introducing policies that make voting more available. In Florida, Amendment 4 addresses restoring the rights of felons which affects over one million citizens and many states including California, Wisconsin, Washington and Utah have enacted preregistration for 16 and 17-year-olds.

“Preregistration of sixteen-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, as was the case in North Carolina, encourages young people to prepare for the assumption of adult civic responsibility, mainly voting,” Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School and former President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Cornell Brooks said. “This is a very important element in addressing voter suppression because quite often voter suppression is not merely black and white, but it is also old versus young. Preregistration is an important tool in combating voter suppression, but it is not the only one.”

Despite all the laws meant to counteract voter suppression, voter suppression still exists and impacts a multitude of minority communities, Brooks said.

Its effect on these communities causes the overall attitude towards voting to shift to a more negative light by making voting appear less accessible and less of a right to certain people, he said.

“Its effect on the black and brown communities [and] many other communities in this country is large because when you treat people who are citizens of this republic as less than citizens, it also makes people sometimes feel less human,” Brooks added. “Voter suppression is insulting, it’s demeaning, it’s degrading, but it also can be determining as in building the determination people have.”

Despite opposition, organizations exist to help encourage minority groups to learn their rights as voters.

Albright and Brown work to educate African-Americans in the South about their voting rights in an effort to ensure all will have their voice heard.

“Both [my co-founder] Cliff Albright and I were very disappointed after our votes were suppressed because it’s 2018 and we had that experience,” Brown added. “We were really upset about how these grown adults were treated and how someone thought they had the right to interfere with their process of voting. That turned into us being really determined and committed to get to the bottom of what happened, and we decided that we were going to support getting the seniors the opportunity to vote.”

Brown said she hopes to spread the message of those who have been affected by repressive voting policies.

“We need to have record numbers.” Brown said. “We need to send a message that we aren’t going back, that you can’t keep trying to mess with our vote and every time you mess with our vote, we get mad, and when we get mad, we get five more votes.”

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