Although voter suppression has a long history in U.S. elections, it’s intensifying in the early 21st century.
While Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville recently suggested no longer having elections at all, the legislature in his and neighboring states are busily advancing new laws that restrict citizens’ ability to decide who will govern them.
For a late-May webinar in its “Democracy Under Attack” series, the nonprofit Alabama Values, gathered voting rights experts from across the country to address this new wave of voter suppression, particularly across the U.S. South, since a U.S. Supreme Court decision ended decades of careful supervision of how states with records of racist policies conducted their elections.
“Historical milestones in the fight for voting rights have marked significant progress toward freedom, democracy and representation,” Anneshia Hardy, Alabama Values’ executive director, acknowledged at the “Empower the Vote: Unmaking Voter Suppression” webinar.
“However, the fight for voting rights continues today. New challenges have emerged threatening to undermine the progress made, by launching discriminatory and unfair vote suppression tactics and policies.”
Until that June 2013 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Shelby (AL) v Holder, states with a history of racial discrimination in voting rights needed “preclearance” before they could change voting rules, a requirement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Congress regularly extended, including, in a bipartisan 2006 vote (98-0 in the Senate), for another 25 years.
Since that decision, states have by now enacted dozens of new voting rules, targeting the increasingly popular mail-in/absentee voting; polling place locations and hours; voter ID rules; community efforts to register voters and get out the vote; how elections are certified and by whom; and more.
More particularly, according to one study, they’ve focused on where Black voter turnout was strongest.
“The reason we’re seeing so many voter suppression bills and bills that strike toward the right to vote in this country, is that progress has happened,” said Charles Taylor, of the Mississippi ACLU, citing the election of more than a thousand Black officials there.
“When we fight, we win,” he said, quoting NAACP leader Derrick Johnson. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done. What happens in Mississippi is going to have effects all over the country.”
Besides combating gerrymandering, Johnson’s been active in a coalition focused on “election protection,” that created a hotline for questions and to report and hopefully mend problems with voting as they occur.
Currently, in Jackson, MS, where the population is 80% nonwhite, he’s fighting HB 1020, that would take control of the Jackson police away from local officials.
Joining Hardy and Taylor were Dillon Nettles from the ACLU in Alabama; Kiana Jackson, an Albany, GA, native and community organizer working for New Disabled South; Rutgers constitutional rights law professor Yael Bromberg of the Andrew Goodman Foundation; the NAACP’s Jamal Watkins, a native of Bakersfield, California, home also to current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, not, as he pointed out, the liberal bastion California is generally considered to be; and, from Massachusetts, Joe Kennedy, founder of the Groundwork Project, a community organizing effort focused on “the real battlefields where the fight for democracy is being waged today – places progressives have gotten used to writing off.”
In Alabama, Nettles is fighting AB209, a measure that makes felonies of an array of ways people can apply for and use absentee/mail-in ballots, which had reached an all-time high in the state in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although AB 209 cleared the state house and then the state senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee to now go before the full senate, Nettles credited “the advocacy and attention that Alabamians have been giving this, especially the Alabama Voting Rights Coalition – probably the only reason it has taken this bill this long to pass.”
“Typically, bills like this fly through. We plan to fight it each and every step of the way.”
“Covid-19 was awful,” Watkins noted, “but it led to some very pragmatic voting reforms that actually worked in our darkest hour. Why wouldn’t we keep those same advancements, those same structures, in place during times of normalcy?”
“It’s about keeping people out of the system, keeping people home, shutting out folks. That’s why you’re seeing all the voter suppression laws that are popping up post-2020, because too many people showed up who would vote in a different type of leadership.”
With more than 10,000 voting jurisdictions in the country, each with individual nuances and variations, he said, the system is “inherently repressive.”
“It’s interesting that the right to bear arms – based on a single amendment to the Constitution – is completely hands-off,” Watkins said, whereas despite the Constitution’s many provisions that it “shall not be abridged,” the right to vote is subject to so many revisions.
Jackson described having to defend herself in court over allegations of violating Georgia’s SB202 by providing water and snacks to disabled would-be voters waiting in long lines in the 2020 election.
“We had people passing out, suffering from high blood pressure,” she said, and sheriff’s officers pulling guns on us for wanting to increase participation.” She said she was advised to wear a bullet-proof vest and that guns were drawn.
She pointed out that while the country’s 20 million people “with some kind of disability” comprise its largest minority group, only 17% of polling stations are fully accessible.
Bromberg said that although she continues to hold out hope for the judicial process, she noted a key flaw: “when a court does not put in a preliminary injunction.”
For example, a 2011 Texas voter ID law was eventually overturned by the conservative federal 5th Circuit in 2016, but in the intervening five years, 600,000 new registrants had been denied the franchise and Wendy Davis had lost the 2014 gubernatorial election to Greg Abbott in a race where only 25% of the voting-age population had cast ballots.
A self-described expert on the 26th Amendment to the Constitution that gave 18-year-olds the vote and barred age discrimination, Bromberg described a 2018 injunction against a Florida ban on polling places on college campuses, won just two months before the election.
Only a dozen campuses managed to set them up, but 60,000 votes were cast. Ron DeSantis was elected governor by 30,000 votes, and Rick Scott won a Senate seat by 10,000.
Jackson added that educational settings tend to do better about being accessible.
“Voting matters. In every election,” Taylor said. “It matters who is on the (judicial) bench. Federal courts need to be filled by good, honest judges. Make sure election commissioners – gatekeepers of local elections – are good folks. They’ll impact everything from president to dog catcher.”