Voting rights advocates are battling on multiple fronts this presidential election year to fend off a proliferation of voter suppression maneuvers that largely restrict people of color and younger Americans from casting their ballots.
“Heading into the 2020 election, voters in half the states face more obstacles to the ballot box and will find it harder to vote than they did a decade ago,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
These new obstacles have energized a counter-campaign to restore and expand voting rights. Often the newer restrictions focus on bureaucratic details, but their intent and impact target the same populations that historically faced violence and harassment when seeking to exercise the right to vote.
The proliferating challenges to the right to vote include requiring people to show specific government identification; mandating an exact match between the name on voting registration records and on approved forms of ID; reducing early voting and absentee voting; preventing voter registration drives by third-party organizations; and aggressive purges of voters who may have moved or who failed to vote in previous elections.
• Exact match standards: Georgia enacted a strict match requirement in 2017, and 80 percent of voters whose registrations were blocked by the new law were people of color. A lawsuit forced Georgia to largely end the policy.
• Early/absentee voting restrictions: cutting hours or days of voting in states such as Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio has the effect of longer lines at the polls and fewer overall voters.
• Restrictions on voting registration drives by third-party organizations, such as those enacted in Tennessee that impose civil penalties on canvassers that submit incomplete or inaccurate registration forms. The measure was enacted after the Tennessee Black Voter Project registered 90,000 new voters for the 2018 midterm election.
• Roll Purges: States like Georgia and Wisconsin are removing hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls, often on flimsy pretexts. A federal judge recently backed Georgia’s purge of more than 100,000 voters.
According to the Brennan Center For Justice, these practices disproportionately disenfranchise people of color.
“What we are seeing is systematic voter suppression around the country,” says Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action, the Georgia organization building on former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ work mobilizing and protecting the rights of voters.
Abrams ran against then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who refused to step down from his job of overseeing elections while campaigning for governor. The final vote count gave him the race by a margin of just 55,000, after as many as 1 million voters were removed from the rolls. She has called Kemp an “architect of voter suppression,” and Abrams used her now-famous non-concession speech of Nov. 16, 2018 to launch Fair Fight Action with Groh-Wargo.
“We’re going to have a fair fight in 2020 because my mission is to make certain that no one has to go through in 2020 what we went through in 2018,” Abrams said in a speech to a union in Las Vegas last summer when she announced an additional initiative aimed at mobilizing voters and countering voter suppression in 20 battleground states.
In Georgia, Fair Fight sued in federal court over voter suppression issues raised by the gubernatorial election and the state’s move to purge 300,000 voters under a “use it or lose it” rule. The court so far has refused to take emergency action to stop the mass Georgia purge, but Groh-Wargo says the suit led to nearly 30,000 voters getting restored after the state admitted to a technical glitch and after advocates’ outreach prompted some voters to update their own registrations. “The court didn’t give us the ruling we had hoped for which was to completely restore these use-it-or-lose-it people, but we ended up viewing it as a win,” says Groh-Wargo.
“What we are seeing is systematic voter suppression around the country.”
That rule also is at the heart of an Ohio law that allowed purging of voters who failed to vote for six years and did not confirm their residency. An unknown number of voters, thought to number in the thousands, were removed from the rolls in 2015, but in 2018 the Supreme Court upheld the law in a 5-4 decision. Other states besides Ohio and Georgia with some version of use-it-or-lose-it include Pennsylvania, Oregon, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Montana.
In Wisconsin, which like Georgia is expected to be a battleground state in 2020, a purge of 200,000 registered voters based on a computer algorithm showing they had changed their residence has led to suits in federal court and has divided the state Elections Commission along party lines on how to proceed. On Jan. 14, an appellate court put a hold on the purge, but pending litigation challenges the hold.
At a private event in Wisconsin last fall, Justin Clark, an adviser to President Trump’s reelection campaign, was recorded confirming that “traditionally, it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes.” Clark was quoted at a later event telling a crowd of Republican lawyers that voter suppression is “going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program.”
Wisconsin also is in the voting rights crosshairs over identification restrictions that opponents say make it more difficult for students to vote. A 2011 law establishing a photo ID requirement was signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, and survived initial court challenges. A federal lawsuit filed by Common Cause is still pending.
That suit says that among 28 states with voter ID laws that allow use of student IDs, Wisconsin is the only one that requires students also to show proof of enrollment and that the student ID can only be valid for up to two years.
Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan organization that works to get more young voters to the polls, says ID laws generally can be problematic for young people who move frequently and may not have a driver’s license or other requisite identification.
“In Texas, student IDs from public universities are not accepted for voting, but gun licenses are,” says DeWitt.
Rock the Vote also opposes residency laws like the one New Hampshire lawmakers adopted last year, which changes the definition of residency to require that voters be permanent residents of New Hampshire. That makes it more difficult for out-of-state college students to be eligible to vote where they go to school.
“We are definitely seeing a backlash against the wave of youth voting that we’ve seen over the last couple of years,” DeWitt says.
In addition to monitoring voter suppression initiatives from Republican-controlled state legislatures, voting rights advocates worry about identifying and curbing stealth tactics by local election officials. Administrative moves that can depress voting include shutting down or moving polling places, changes in polling place hours, using new ways of voting that may confuse voters, and not adequately training polling place workers, all of which also may contribute to long waits to cast ballots.
“These types of things are hard for us to alert people of and address everywhere,” says Sophia Lakin, an attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights project.
“So many of these restrictions fall disproportionately on these communities that have been growing in strength over the last decade or so—voters of color, young voters, voters with disabilities,” adds Lakin. “What’s at stake for many of the state actors who are perpetrating these restrictive measures, and certainly what’s motivating it, is an attempt to keep control.
“As the country’s electorate has changed over time becoming more diverse, that has motivated I would say a lot of efforts to make voting more difficult. Look at what we are seeing with racial gerrymandering,” she continued. “You’re putting in place a situation where politicians are choosing their voters, and voters are not choosing their politicians.”
Advocates cite two key triggers that helped propel voting restrictions: the 2008 election of Barack Obama and a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutting part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lakin says the huge increase in voters of color and young voters in 2008 “resulted in the election of the first African American president, and almost immediately in that aftermath we start to hear the beginnings of a suppression period that follows about 45 years of expansion of voting rights.”
Then in Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court in 2013 removed a requirement for states and local governments with a history of discrimination to get approval from the federal government before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. Lakin says the ruling gave the jurisdictions formerly subject to preclearance “free rein in terms of putting into place restrictions,” and since the 2013 ruling those states have had a higher rate of purges.
“People need to understand our whole country’s history is a fight for voting rights and in many ways.”
The Voting Rights Advancement Act, which passed the House in 2019 but is unlikely to get through the Republican-held Senate, would restore the preclearance process voided by Shelby and update the Voting Rights Act to provide protections against newer forms of voter discrimination.
The counter-campaign to increase voting access advocates measures that make it easier to vote, such as same-day registration, automatic voter registration, automatic registration updates and voting by mail.
At this point, 16 states and the District of Columbia have approved automatic voter registration, but Weiser says only 12 states will have it in place in time for the 2020 elections. She says that 24 states will have same-day registration in place for the November general election.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states now allow some elections to be conducted by mail, and four use mailed ballots for all elections: Oregon (2000), Washington (2011), Colorado (2013) and Hawaii (2019).
Groh-Wargo urges candidates and campaigns to start early building voter protection infrastructure and to follow the “Abrams Playbook” of reaching out to all voters, including those in underrepresented communities and those considered unlikely to vote.
“We can’t win every court battle, we can’t overcome Russian interference in our elections, we can’t do Congress’ job for them,” says Groh-Wargo. “We’re not going to sit around and wait. We’re going to be fighting day in and day out. So much of the right to vote is an exercise in organizing as much as it is an exercise in the battle in the courtroom.”
“People need to understand our whole country’s history is a fight for voting rights and in many ways, this is about a new fight, and it is a fight worth having and we can be victorious,” she says.
What Can You Do?
Advocates urge individual voters to help counter voter suppression by:
• Checking your voter registration early and often to make sure it’s up to date. Make sure family and friends also check. Many states have easy online access to your view registration records, and vote.org also has voting data from all 50 states.
• Helping counter misinformation and disinformation by knowing the credible sources for voting information and sharing it with others. Double-check the information you hear and report disinformation immediately.
• Volunteering to be poll workers.
Linda Kramer Jenning is an independent journalist and past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. She often writes about women and politics.