When Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams lost to Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp last year, the long legacy of Georgia’s voter suppression—closed polling locations, slow-moving lines, 53,000 voters waiting to be verified—thrust voters rights directly into the public discourse again. It was a painful reminder of the transgressions leveled against voters of color and other underrepresented people across the generations, and emblematic of actions largely taken by Republicans across the country both in the 2018 midterms and the general election in 2016.
Voter suppression is as old as elections themselves. In the past, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other racially discriminatory tactics were common. Today, the spotlight rests squarely on two key issues: gerrymandering, in particular by Republican-led legislatures across the country, and the wide variety of persistent efforts to disenfranchise voters of color, students, and other underrepresented communities.
The Abrams vs. Kemp runoff wasn’t the first time voter suppression impacted election results. In fact, for Kortney Lapeyrolerie, a South Carolinian who now lives in Brooklyn, the irregularities seen in the Georgia gubernatorial race were reminiscent of the 2016 presidential election when the absentee ballot she requested in the Palmetto State inexplicably was marked for October 1969.
“I called my local elections board to report the error; gave them my voter’s registration information; and asked if anyone else had reported an issue,” she said. “They responded by saying that it shouldn’t really matter.”
Lapeyrolerie, though, hails from a strong family of black voters. Her grandfather was a Baptist minister who was active in the civil rights movement, particularly in West Virginia, and occupied national leadership roles in the NAACP. She never anticipated ballot issues. She called the state board of elections anyway.
“They asked me to send in a copy of the ballot; told me that it absolutely mattered because it would’ve made it invalid, and asked to whom I had already spoken,” she said. “Thankfully, I received an updated ballot with the correct date. My vote was almost stolen [due to] something that was completely out of my control.”
Was the 50-year-old ballot part of a larger conspiracy to reduce the number of absentee ballots used? That’s not clear. But it raises the question of how many voters ran into similar issues?
Unfortunately, “Is it just me, or is something more sinister happening?” is a question underrepresented voters—particularly black voters—have been asking themselves since the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. The amendment legally granted black men (black women still had to wait until well after the passage of the 19th) the right to vote. Things were even worse for Native Americans; it was well into the 1960s before every state upheld their freedom to vote.
From the 15th Amendment forward, informal tests, property ownership, and even threat of physical harm stood between marginalized voters and the polls.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 penalized racially discriminatory measures and required states with a history of voter suppression to seek approval before passing new election laws. But since its passage, the act has been under attack and bit by bit—most recently, with the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision—it’s become virtually powerless.
Conservatives, meanwhile, continue to use hyperbolic anecdotes to cry “voter fraud” and suggest that bad actors are intentionally gaming the system, even as evidence suggests otherwise. In many cases, these specious claims have formed the foundation for discriminatory policies and legislation that makes voting harder.
Rodney K. Nickens, Jr., founder of R&N Strategies, a political consultancy in Oakland, California, said it’s important to be cognizant of how gerrymandering, a key voter suppression tactic being challenged today, affects political outcomes and makes voting districts in places like Florida, Texas, and most notably North Carolina look more like children’s Etch A Sketches than district maps. “Gerrymandering refers to the drawing of boundaries of electoral or legislative districts to benefit one political party or group and handicap or disadvantage another,” Nickens said.
Responding to challenges to gerrymandering in North Carolina and Maryland, conservative members of the Supreme Court decided last week that questions around gerrymandering were “beyond the reach of the federal courts,” setting up state-by-state battles over districts. In an impassioned dissent read from the bench, Justice Elena Kagan said the court’s 5-4 ruling would “imperil our system of government.”
For decades, gerrymandering has impacted political power and the viability of campaigns for candidates of color. But it doesn’t act in isolation. Brianna Kirkland, a human rights activist and the campaign manager in Houston, said voter suppression is much more than wonky district lines. It’s a laundry list of targeted campaigns intended to monopolize government while rendering marginalized votes nearly worthless.
“It impacts the legislation that is passed to protect you. It is the reason why we are seeing so many progressive populations being represented by conservative leaders whose sole purpose is to increase the quality of life for white upper-class Americans,” Kirkland said. “It is why we are losing our health care, losing access to public-housing/transportation, and wages that keep folks in poverty.”
Gerrymandering and deliberate voter suppression tactics have a harmful enough impact on their own. But when used in tandem with local obstacles like subpar technology and state policies like Voter ID laws, underrepresented voters can unknowingly end up going through the ritual of voting while remaining powerless in the democratic process.
Ineffective facility management—like faulty machines and incorrect ballots—also make voting harder. These and other tactics decrease the potential that a ballot will be cast or counted. Voter roll purges and “exact match” software are just two examples of other tactics in use. Both are passed under the guise of keeping records up-to-date and both have severe consequences, most often for people of color and gender minorities who intend to vote.
“Additionally, Voter ID laws all but isolate homeless communities of color as no residency makes it nearly impossible to obtain the necessary identification to vote,” Kirkland said. “We see this trend largely affecting our transgender communities as the process to update name and gender is a tedious one.”
These tools limit the voting ability of large numbers of people at a time where each vote counts. Recent elections like the 2018 race for Kentucky’s state House District 13, in which Democratic candidate Jim Glenn beat incumbent Republican Rep. D.J. Johnson by one vote, demonstrate the importance of every ballot. But the hoops associated with registration, transportation, and voting have gotten increasingly harder to jump through. Status uncertainty can severely deter potential voters.
Kirkland recalls the targeted suppression efforts against senior citizens related to transportation in Jefferson County, Georgia, in 2018. “They were effectively pulled off the bus after county officials stopped the trip, though permission had already been granted by the appropriate channels. This happened in Jefferson county where about 53% of the population is black, however access to transportation for voting purposes is a major issue,” she recalled, noting the historical significance of “rides to polls” in communities of color.”
When paired with registration uncertainty, long lines might dissuade the most diligent voters. The racial gap in wait times are well-documented. Black voters often wait double the time as white voters. During the 2018 midterms, communities of color reported waiting times as long as four hours.
Millions of potential voters would happily participate in the ritual of voting if given the chance. For the formerly incarcerated, voting determines many of the policies and laws that affect their freedom. However, thanks to felony disenfranchisement, the Americans who have firsthand experience of the worst aspects of the criminal justice system are again forced to watch the political process from behind a glass window.
Felony disenfranchisement relies heavily on the “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” portion of the 13th Amendment and works in tandem with a vastly corrupt criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerated black and brown people for drug and other minor offenses. Ironically, this is done as white people open legal dispensaries (roughly 80% of dispensaries have white owners).
Currently, only two states (Maine and Vermont) preserve felon voting rights. All other states place at least temporary restrictions based on present or former incarceration status. More states are working on reinstating that right for those who are incarcerated. Fourteen states and D.C. provide automatic restoration after release, depending on the offense, and 22 more states automatically restore rights after sentences, including probation and parole, are completed.
Data from 2016 suggests more than 6 million Americans lack voting access as a result of felony disenfranchisement. For certain groups like black men, where roughly one-third of the population has a felony conviction, the right to vote is always under attack.
Despite obstacles, many political professionals are adamant that we can’t allow voter suppression to win. Nickens highlights the power of each vote and discusses the impact of collective power for change. Kirkland cites rallies, meetings, and elected official accountability as a catalyst for change. Lapeyrolerie believes we should investigate the issues with absentee ballots prior to the 2020 election. Luckily, efforts are being made.
A small number of bipartisan efforts work toward preserving voters’ rights. But much of the power comes from the people. Underrepresented voters—especially black voters—have proven time and time again that the right to vote will not be stolen easily. Kirkland is one of many millennials involved in grassroots efforts, like the Black Voters Matter Fund, to fight back against voter suppression.
Throughout the country, lawsuits and federal legislation like the Democracy Restoration Act, which aims to restore voting rights to more than 3.3 people who are formerly incarcerated, and other organizations focused on equal representation in politics show promise.
“You have the power to vote them out. You have the power to replace them with someone who will work for you,” Kirkland said.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a Contributing Fellow at Prism and a diversity content specialist whose work can be read in The Washington Post, InStyle, The Guardian, and other places. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.