Stickers that say "I Voted Today" which are torn.

Election 2020

What Is Voter Suppression? A Primer.

We don’t have a democracy if voters can’t get to the polls—and if their votes aren’t counted. Here's how we can fight to ensure a fair electoral process in the most important election of our lives.

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Voter suppression at its very core is about power and access. The influencing of who can and cannot vote means leads to maximum participation in our democracy. Generally, voter suppression is anything that seeks to limit participation in the electoral process or burdens eligible voters in the free exercise of their right to vote. 

The fight for equal voting rights and access dates back as early as the founding of this country. Despite the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments, as well as the 1965 Voting Rights Act, voting rights are still not secure. Whether it is setting up various laws and restrictions that prevent or limit the ability to register people to vote or attempts to criminalize activity around voting-rights advocacy, voter suppression undermines the effectiveness of democracy. Having a strong democracy requires a meaningful participatory process. 

How Does Voter Suppression Manifest? 

Voter suppression can occur in numerous ways including but not limited to local practices, state legislation, or administrative rules. It can include voter ID requirements, poll closures, and consolidations, voter purges, limitations on the ability of individuals to register to vote, felony disenfranchisement laws and so on. Voter intimidation can also lead to suppression of the vote. The Advancement Project, along with coalition partners, challenged the presence of police at polling sites in the 2016 election

Since the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, many states have enacted laws and adopted policies that undermine equal access to the ballot box. After passing a strict voter ID law, in 2015 Alabama announced the closure of nearly three dozen DMV locations. These closures hit the majority-Black counties hard. A North Dakota law created a clear obstacle to voting for those who did not have a “current residential street address.” Native American advocates raised concerns about the impact of the law considering many Native American communities lacked residential street addresses. It was common for people to use P.O. boxes. Poll closures are another way that voter suppression occurs. Since Shelby, close to 1,000 polling locations have been closed with countless others consolidated. 

Recently in Tennessee and Texas, we saw state legislatures take steps to criminalize aspects of voter registration. Earlier this year, Texas was ordered to stop a massive voter-purge effort that was used to fuel “anti-immigrant hysteria and a lie about voter fraud to try to sap communities of color of their political power.” While the attempt in Texas was beaten back, a federal suit was filed in Tennessee seeking to stop the law from going into effect in a state that has the 49th lowest voter turnout in the country.  

While much focus has been on the South, states like Kansas and Wisconsin have seen efforts to disenfranchise voters on a large scale. Ahead of midterm elections, a federal judge struck down a Kansas law requiring proof of U.S. citizenship to register to vote.” Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach led the expansion of states using the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck program under the guise of combatting nonexistent voter fraud. Crosscheck has contributed to millions of voters being disenfranchised in the last several years due to false flags in the racially biased system.

As we have seen in Georgia, state power has been leveraged to not only suppress voters of color but criminalize them as well. Long before he ran for Governor in Georgia, Brian Kemp used his power and influence as Secretary of State to purge voters, recommend poll closures, and target voting rights organizations and advocates. Following in the footsteps of now Governor Kemp, Republican officials have launched an investigation and are issuing subpoenas without meeting the legal requirement of showing evidence of wrongdoing. Even before Shelby, Georgia officials have targeted Black candidates and voting rights advocates.  

What Can We Do About Voter Suppression?

Combatting voter suppression and voter intimidation requires collective visioning and understanding of what is at stake. Tackling voter suppression requires us to be aware of the laws and policies in our state as well as the administration of rules and policies by County Boards of Elections.

Become a sustaining donor, member or volunteer directly with organizations doing the work. Supporting local and state-level organizations committed to expanding voter participation and engagement can go a long way. 

Advocates and concerned citizens alike need to be educated about voter suppression and work to ensure equal access to the ballot box. Pay attention to meeting announcements for discussions of poll closures and precinct consolidations. Thank the local, state, and national advocates for leading the charge. While this is not an exhaustive list of types of voter suppression and ways we can fight them, it is important to get to know the people in your neighborhood and learn how best to plug-in. If there isn’t an organization in your area consider reaching out to others to learn more about how they got started, and consider forming your own.

It is important that we show up to the voting-rights fight as we do for many other causes. Without equal access to the ballot box, shifting the balance of power on crucial issues threatening our very existence becomes next to impossible.

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