This blog post was written and researched by Isabell Liu, 2020 Voter Research & Engagement Intern. If you need to register to vote, you can do so easily via our website.
On July 22, President Trump tweeted yet another misinformed claim that mail-in voting would ‘rig’ the election as more and more states transition to the more equitable and accessible system of voting by mail in response to COVID-19.
This is by no means the first time he has spread misinformation about voter fraud and mail-in ballots (claims that have already been debunked by CNN and other election specialists). On November 3 he, and a number of other important officials, will be up for re-election.
Besides forcing voters to choose between their health and democracy, these claims have also allowed Trump and his administration to institute more voter suppression laws on top of the pre-existing barriers that already prevent millions of eligible voters from showing up to the ballots.
Although the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity–described as an attempt to “kick millions of eligible voters off the rolls and undermine the sanctity of our election systems” by the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division–was dissolved in 2018, this is just one of many cases of those in power attempting to suppress voters (particularly those from marginalized communities) in the history of U.S. elections.
A Brief History of Voter Suppression In the US
One of the most fundamental rights of a U.S. citizen is the right to vote. Voting shapes the lives of everyone living in the United States and is meant to reflect the needs and demands of all Americans–at least, in practice.
But in reality, the history of voting is also the history of voter suppression. When the United States first became a country only white male landowners could vote, disenfranchising millions of Black, female, lower-income people (who were undoubtedly also impacted by the officials and policies chosen in each election) for more than 100 years; women did not have the right to vote until 1920, and neither could Native Americans until 1962.
But the fight for equal access to the polls in the U.S. arguably began with the abolitionist movement and the 1865 passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to officially abolish slavery in the U.S.–more than 300 years after the arrival of the first kidnapped and stolen Africans in North America as part of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Franklin Douglass famously said: “[s]lavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot.”
The passing of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 officially gave Black men the right to vote, but many states continued to engage in de facto voter suppression via poll taxes, character tests, literacy tests, laws that prevented descendents of slaves from voting, and other tactics–some of which are still used today to bar voters of color, Native Americans, the elderly, and other marginalized communities from making it to the polls.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act
After more than 90 years of fighting Black voter suppression, the Civil Rights movement gave Black organizers and their allies the momentum they needed to finally pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to abolish and ban policies that prevented Black voters from casting their ballots.
And the Act worked.
Just two years after it passed, Black voter registration rates in Mississippi rose from a meager 6.7 percent to 59.8 percent, and in 2012 the state’s gap even reversed with 90.2 percent of Black-voting age Missisipians registered to vote in comparison to the 82.4 percent of their non-Hispanic white counterparts.
According to Time, by 1980 “the percentage of the adult Black population on the voter rolls in the South had already surpassed that in the rest of the country.”
With more Black voters, more of the needs of the Black community were finally being heard. Even in more rural areas of the country, Black residents who once decried the state of their streets to no avail were seeing paving crews touch up their neighborhoods. A study by James Button recorded the quadrupling of Black employment between 1960 and 2000 in six cities in Florida.
How SCOTUS ‘Gutted’ the VRA in 2013
And yet, despite these successes, in 2013 the Supreme Court dealt a crushing blow to non-white voters nationwide by striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required all states with a “history of race-based voter discrimination” to submit any changes in their election laws before enforcing them, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Shelby County, Alabama had filed a suit in 2010 to declare this practice of preventing states from passing potentially discriminatory laws unconstitutional, and in November 2012 the Supreme Court agreed to take the case.
The SCOTUS decision allows states to once again begin passing laws to specifically prevent certain voters–particularly those from marginalized communities–from voting, without any interference from the federal government.
(For more information on the case, please read this article from the Brennan Center for Justice.)
Less than 24 hours after the ruling, Texas–followed swiftly by Mississippi and Alabama–announced a new strict photo ID law that would have once been barred by the now-obsolete Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
The Brennan Center for Justice’s 2018 State of Voting Report found that states that previously had to submit their election law changes to the U.S. Justice Department for “preclearance” have since enacted laws and other policies to restrict voting following the 2013 ruling.
What Today’s Voter Suppression Looks Like
In light of the president’s recent attacks on voter accessibility in the current pandemic, as well as the increase of voter suppression laws following the 2013 Supreme Court decision, it’s important to note that voter suppression continues to block millions of eligible voters from participating in the American democracy–especially voters of color, people living with disabilities, and the elderly.
Per the ACLU, current tactics to prevent those from marginalized voters from making it to the polls include: voter ID laws, voter registration restrictions, voter purges, felony disenfranchisement, and gerrymandering.
Voter ID laws require voters to present one of a few specific forms of government-issued photo ID’s in order to vote, even though more than 21 million U.S. citizens do not have any form of government ID. This requirement burdens those from lower-income communities, who may not have the time or funds to invest in costly government IDs, and those who may not be able to travel to apply for their IDs.
In Washington state, only those who vote in person are required to present one of these forms of ID: a Washington state ID or driver’s license, a student ID card, a tribal ID card, or an employer ID card. If you are voting by mail for the first time and did not include your ID in your registration, please remember to enclose a copy of a photo ID, paycheck, or another government document with your name and address in your envelope when you return your ballot.
Voter registration restrictions like requiring “proof of citizenship” documents and restricting the time period of registration prevent suppress voters long before they can even make it to the polls by discouraging them from even registering.
Voter purges disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters per election–especially in states with a history of a history of racialized voter suppression–to allegedly filter out voters who have either moved, passed away, or have not voted in recent elections. But according to the ACLU states often use inaccurate data when conducting these purges, thereby stripping many voters who do not fall under these criteria of their right to vote.
More than fifty years after the formal end of the Jim Crow Era, felony disenfranchisement laws continue to target Black people, who usually face harsher sentences than their white counterparts for the exact same offenses.
The Guardian reports that many Southern states still use segregation-era laws to prevent felons and ex-felons from participating in the US democracy, which disenfranchised roughly 6 million voters (a majority of which were Black men) as of 2016.
As of 2020, Washingtonians with felony convictions are eligible to vote upon completion of sentence.
Last but definitely not least, another way in which government policies suppress voters is via “gerrymandering,” or redrawing district lines to affect the outcome of elections.
The district lines determine the representatives that are chosen to represent local and regional communities, with profound impacts on both statewide and national elections; districts determine who is–or, when misused, isn’t–represented.
Just this past year, the president pushed to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census–the main determinant in how states redraw their district lines with each new decade. Although the ACLU successfully blocked the question from making it onto this year’s census questionnaire, its addition would have discouraged immigrants or citizens in mixed-status households from participating and ultimately being represented by the new district lines.
Voter Suppression in Washington
In 2018, Washington state passed a statewide version of the Voting Rights Act to give voters the ability to protest and demand changes to district-level voting, but there is still much work to be done. This past March, Native voters in the Colville Tribes in Ferry County and Latinx voters in Yakima County cited this new law to challenge the current at-large election system that dilutes their votes.
In a statement to Crosscut, Colville member Janessa Esquivel said that “[t]he general feeling of people from Keller [is] that tribal members specifically are not counted–that our vote doesn’t matter…[i]t’s almost a pervasive feeling of oppression, systemic racism, and it’s very disheartening.” Although Esquivel noted that pushing to change the electoral system would by no means address all these issues, it would at least amplify Native voices.
Although in recent months Washington state’s election system has become a model for states looking to transition to mail-in voting, there are still many ways in which the state’s democratic process disadvantages or suppresses marginalized populations.
Some of the current demands of Washington Voting Justice Coalition, a group that advocates for voter rights in Washington state, include giving formerly or currently incarcerated people the right to vote, making online voting more accessible for those living with disabilities, and increasing the number of drop boxes across the state for voters to cast their ballots.
One of the most powerful ways in which you and other voting-eligible Washingtonians can protect your vote is by voting in the upcoming primary on August 4, and in the presidential election on November 3, for representatives and policies that advocate for–rather than suppress–marginalized communities.