By Emma Campbell
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the United States has been actively suppressing the fundamental right to vote in certain groups since its founding. Black Americans weren’t granted the right to vote until the ratification of the 15thAmendment in 1869, and women weren’t given the right until the passing of the 19thAmendment in 1920.
Sadly, examples of voter suppression throughout American history are too numerous for this article to cover in-depth. While more egregious examples — such as Jim Crow laws, which History.com describes as “a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation…meant to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote” — are lightly covered in some school curriculums, contemporary voter suppression tactics are less widely known.
It is vital to our democracy that we recognize voter suppression as not an issue of the past.
“Since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans — particularly Black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities — to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot,” ACLU.org said. “These measures include cuts to early voting, voter ID laws, and purges of voter rolls.”
Even before the additional voting challenges caused by COVID-19, the U.S. has made the simple act of casting a ballot more difficult than necessary.
Election day isn’t a national holiday, placing the polls out of reach for workers without flexible schedules and parents without access to childcare. While most countries register constituents by default, the American voter registration process is cumbersome. It requires an application process and the presentation of government-issued documents — namely, photo identification and proof of citizenship — that some voters don’t have access to, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Millions of Americans are ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions, no matter how small the infraction — such as the hundreds of cases in which people are sentenced for carrying small amounts of contraband, according to senior staff attorney at ACLU/Capital Punishment Project.
Lack of government funding leads to a shortage in polling equipment, stations, and workers, which in turn leads to long, winding lines of voters forced to wait hours before casting their ballots. During the 2020 Georgia state primary, The New York Times reported on “missing and malfunctioning voting machines [that] forced people to wait in line for up to eight hours.”
“For most workers, time spent in line is money in the form of lost wages and labor hours,” Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times said. “For low-income workers in particular, long lines may prove so economically ruinous that they may not vote at all. Given the uneven distribution of long lines, this is the point.”
Resource shortage is a larger problem in Black neighborhoods than in others. According to a 2016 study conducted by economist Keith Chen of the University of California, Los Angeles, voters in predominantly Black neighborhoods waited 29% longer on average than predominantly white neighborhoods.
“[It] really creates a barrier to the most vulnerable voters out there,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, an attorney at the ACLU. “No citizen should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote.”
In addition to outlandishly long waits and equipment malfunctions, more advanced political systems have been put in place that limit suffrage. 36 states require voters to present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote — a mandate that fails to take into account the over 21 million Americans who do not own such an ID, according the National Conference of State Legislatures and the ACLU.
Many states enforce registration laws that place unnecessary time limits on voters. New York, for example, requires voters to register at least 25 days before election day. If voters do not meet this deadline, their registration applications will not be processed. This needlessly strict regulation has had grim consequences. During the 2016 presidential election, over 90,000 New Yorkers weren’t permitted to vote because their registrations didn’t meet the 25-day cutoff.
Voter suppression tactics, new and old, are rampant in the U.S., and it’s foolish to pretend that conditions are improving. If anything, tactics have become more brazen.
President Donald Trump is an active perpetrator of voter suppression, calling for vote-counting to stop when millions of mail-in ballots in the 2020 election had yet to be totaled. Though Trump’s attempts to silence roughly half of the nation’s voting population failed, the fact that it is not illegal for the president to voice these wishes is disturbing.
Dan Rather, American journalist and author of “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism,” said, “To suppress the vote is to make a mockery of democracy. And those who do so are essentially acknowledging that their policies are unpopular. If you can’t convince a majority of voters that your ideas are worthy, you try to limit the pool of voters. This reveals a certain irony: Many who are most vocal in championing a free, open, and dynamic economy are the same political factions that suppress these principles when it comes to the currency of ideas.”
The U.S. government has been complicit in voter suppression for centuries. Since our elected officials have done little to stem this underhanded war on democracy, it is the job of the voters to ensure that this indispensable right is protected.
Featured Photo caption: The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many American voters to use mail-in ballots during the 2020 presidential election. Photo By Rebecca Kanaskie.