Deep Dive: Voter Suppression Across the South

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting, including a number of thinly veiled methods of voter suppression like poll taxes and literacy tests. For an entire generation, this legislation protected voters in general, and Black voters in particular, from being discriminated against at the polls. But in 2013, in a case that originated in Alabama, the Supreme Court dismantled much of the Voting Rights Act in a 5-4 decision, on the grounds that racial discrimination was no longer an issue in the United States. Critics- including the recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent– quickly pointed out that racial discrimination in elections were no longer commonplace specifically because of the law that the court was overturning, and that without the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression would become commonplace once again.

Those fears have been realized, particularly in the South. As Barack Obama said in his eulogy for John Lewis, a champion of the Voting Rights Act:

“We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting — by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision.”

To look at all of the ways that this is actually being put into practice can be dizzying. Any one or two of the policies Republican-controlled states have implemented could be explained away with concerns of budgets or, less plausibly, voter fraud, but viewed as a whole, can be seen as nothing other than a systematic effort to suppress the vote of Black citizens, who largely vote for Democratic candidates.

VOTER ID LAWS

One of the most popular tactics of voter suppression in the twenty-first century is requiring voters to provide photo ID that matches their name on the voter roll. It’s popular because it’s the easiest one to explain away as a simple precaution to prevent fraud. The rationale goes that without such laws, malicious actors could enter polling places on election day and claim to be someone on the voter roll, essentially stealing a vote. But such voter fraud is incredibly rare, especially weighed against the negative impact these laws carry.

First of all, most forms of photo ID cost money, which, some argue, means requiring an ID amounts to little more than a poll tax. Even in states that offer some form of free ID, though, there is still the issue of potential voters getting transportation to and from the offices that distribute the ID, and producing the necessary paperwork. Those who have readily available transportation rarely consider that many people do not. Because things like poverty and the shortfalls of the American transportation system disproportionately affect Black people, so do voter ID laws. In fact, in 2017, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund reported that 118,000 registered voters in Alabama did not have the means to obtain proper identification under voter ID laws.

Alabama officials haven’t seemed to care. They passed voter ID laws shortly after the Supreme Court ruling and, the very next year, closed thirty-one driver’s license offices, mostly in predominantly Black areas, making it even harder for poor Black voters to obtain proper identification. But they aren’t stopping there. The upcoming election, which features both a presidential race and a tight U.S. Senate race, will be the first under Alabama’s new voter ID law, which requires an enhanced ID card- what Alabama officials call a STAR ID- which requires even more paperwork than a normal ID card.

In places like South Carolina, voter ID laws are coupled with controversial provisional ballot laws. If a registered voter shows up to vote without proper ID, they can fill out a provisional ballot, swearing to their identity, with the understanding that they may or may not have to come to court with their ID two days later to prove their identity, if their ballot is challenged. These “challenges” are usually made by poll watchers who represent candidates at each voting site. This means that a partisan poll watcher can simply challenge every provisional ballot cast by an African-American, while ignoring those cast by white voters. Many who cast provisional ballots never even realize that their ballots have been challenged, which means that they never knew to go to court to show their ID. Some may think that such scenarios are unlikely, but this process led to nearly half of all provisional ballots being discarded in the 2016 presidential election.

Under current voter ID laws in Texas, voters may use a handgun license to vote, but not a college ID. This is a clear suppression of young Texas voters, who overwhelmingly lean left. Meanwhile, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia impose some of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. In fact, North Carolina is the only southern state that does not currently require some form of ID to vote. But even there, conservative legislators are fighting in court to change that.

But such measures are just the tip of the iceberg in attempts by conservative lawmakers to maintain power in a slowly progressing South.

POLLING LOCATION CLOSURES

Since the Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act, southern states have closed more than 1,200 polling places, mostly in precincts serving a disproportionate number of Black voters. These closures create a myriad of problems. Closures are rarely sufficiently publicized, leading to confusion on election day as voters arrive at closed polling places. And, as previously discussed, even if they know where to go, many poor Black voters lack transportation to get to the correct polling places if they’re far away. And even if they do have transportation, fewer polling sites means longer lines, lines that many poor voters can’t afford to wait in. These problems are rampant. Texas alone has closed at least 750 polling sites since 2012. That has had tangible consequences: in an election earlier this year, some predominantly Black precincts in Texas saw lines lasting upwards of six hours. The last vote was cast at 1:00 AM. That’s attributable partly to faulty voting machines, but also to a system being overwhelmed by voters that were once spread out over hundreds of additional sites.

In Kentucky’s Jefferson County (which includes Louisville), which is home to 767,000 total residents and more Black voters than any other county in the state, officials closed all but a single polling place in an election earlier this year. This was ostensibly done as a precaution against COVID-19, but that claim defies logic. Closing polling locations creates a bottleneck, which forces more people into close proximity for longer periods of time.

Alabama closed at least sixty-six polling places after the Supreme Court ruling, many in places with a high number of Black voters, like Daphne, which saw three of its five polling places close in 2016.

In 2018 alone, Georgia closed polling places in ten counties with significant Black populations, per the recommendation of a white elections consultant. However, when the same consultant suggested closures in a white county, state officials declined to do so.

Occasionally, Republicans will frankly admit that these poll closures are intended to make voting harder. During a floor debate, a Florida state senator made the intent clear: “I want them to fight for it. I want them to know what it’s like. I want them to go down there and have to walk across town to go over and vote.” Later, he closed dozens of polling places as elections supervisor in Manatee County. This sort of forthrightness, while appreciated, should be deeply disturbing to all.

VOTER ROLL PURGES

Even before the Supreme Court neutered the Voting Rights Act, a favorite tactic among conservative politicians has been periodically removing names from voter registration rolls that may have moved or otherwise be ineligible to vote in the state. They claim this is to keep rolls current and prevent voter fraud, but the approach is akin to setting the house on fire to kill a cockroach. State officials use faulty systems to flag names, leading to thousands of duly registered voters arriving at the polls on election day, only to be told that they’re not allowed to vote.

It’s an old game in Florida. Before the 2000 presidential election, tens of thousands of names were improperly purged from voter rolls. Bush ultimately won Florida and, by extension, the electoral college, by 537 votes.

A “software glitch” in Texas led to the wrongful disenfranchisement of 1,700 Harris County voters in 2018 after a Republican ballot security chairman challenged the legitimacy of some voter registrations. Last year, state officials tried (and failed) to purge thousands of naturalized citizens from voter rolls.

Georgia officials have wrongly purged hundreds of thousands of registered voters from rolls since 2016 in what they claimed was an effort to keep the rolls current. In fact, Georgia offers a particularly chilling case study in voter suppression. Brian Kemp, who won the state’s gubernatorial race, served as Georgia’s secretary of state in the years leading up to and during his campaign, personally overseeing the systematic disenfranchisement of Black constituents via voting site closures and voter roll purges, which ultimately benefitted him in a campaign against Stacy Abrams, a Black woman. That election was so disastrous that it became the subject of an HBO documentary, but state election officials have done little to improve the process. In this year’s presidential primaries, the last vote was cast well after midnight. Almost all polling places that saw lines of more than five hours were in predominantly Black areas.

In recent weeks, many Facebook users have complained about the site’s constant prompts to register to vote, because they’re already registered. But it’s worth double checking your voter registration status; we often don’t know that these purges have happened until it’s too late.

VOTER REGISTRATION SUPPRESSION

Conservative officials don’t stop at purging the existing voter registration rolls; they also actively impede the process for registering new voters. Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi are three of just nine states that still have no plans to offer an online voter registration option. And, on National Voter Registration Day this year, Louisiana’s online voter registration site was shut down due to what Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin called “scheduled maintenance,” which begs the question why his office scheduled a shutdown of the site on that of all days, if not to keep people from registering to vote.

And it doesn’t stop there. State officials regularly employ blatant intimidation against paper registration attempts. Tennessee legislators passed a bill last year imposing fines and, in some cases, misdemeanor charges against voter registration groups who submit too many incomplete voter registration applications. As governor of Florida, Rick Scott tightened restrictions on how voter registration drives may be conducted.

The problem with threats of prosecution (as we’ll see with mail-in voting) is that many voters and even voter registration groups may be reluctant to go through with the process, out of fear of being prosecuted for honest mistakes.

MAIL-IN VOTING

By now, you’re likely familiar with some of the controversies surrounding mail-in voting. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many states have expanded access to mail-in voting for those afraid to vote in-person in the middle of a pandemic. And on a federal level, there have been plenty of attempts to undermine this process. President Trump regularly makes baseless claims that mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud, and has admitted to blocking funding for the post office for the sole purpose of preventing mail-in ballots from being counted, while the new postmaster general (who was a Trump megadonor in 2016) has intentionally slowed down the mail.

But many conservative-controlled states in the South have resisted expanding access to mail-in ballots. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee make up four of the five states that do not recognize concerns about COVID-19 as a valid reason for mail-in ballots. The Texas Supreme Court has blocked the Harris County clerk from sending mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters, despite the county (which includes Houston) seeing the most COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, has threatened to prosecute voters who attempt to vote by mail out of fear of exposure to COVID-19. These threats lead to concerns that the few people who are qualified to vote by mail in Texas may be reluctant to do so out of fear of prosecution for making a mistake in the process.

And then there is Mississippi. Governor Tate Reeves, in an interview with CBS, had this to say in defense of his decision to block efforts to expand mail-in voting:

“We- we do not allow mail in voting in the state of Mississippi. We think that- that our elections process, which has been in place for many, many years, is a- ensures that we have a fair process in which we have the opportunity to limit fraud. We still have fraudulent claims every single election.”

So, his justification for not changing the current voting system is to point at the claims of fraud that occur under the state’s current voting system.

On a similar note: Alabama is one of just two states to receive an F from the Brookings Institute for efforts to make voting safer during a pandemic; Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Kentucky make up four of the nine states to receive a D.

FELON DISENFRANCHISEMENT

Particularly topical at the moment is the practice of revoking voting rights of convicted felons, even after their sentences have been served. Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee are all among the handful of states that permanently revoke voting rights for at least some felony offenses, while Kentucky and Virginia permanently disenfranchise all convicted felons. Because America’s criminal justice system leads to massively disproportionate incarceration of Black people, these laws are inherently racist. Nearly eight per cent of all African-Americans are disenfranchised by these laws, compared to less than two per cent of non-Black Americans.

And some state leaders know how to further weaponize these laws. In a summer of anti-racism protests across the country, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a law that makes camping on state property as a form of protest a felony. That legislation has been seen by many as a clear attempt to disenfranchise Black Lives Matter protesters in the state. Alabama previously imposed permanent disenfranchisement for all convicted felons, but has since restored voting rights for some felons. But state officials have made little effort to publicly clarify what felonies constitute disenfranchisement, leaving many former felons confused about their own voter status.

In the current spotlight, though, is Florida, where voters approved a statewide ballot known as Amendment Four, repealing disenfranchisement of convicted felons who have served their sentences. But Florida officials, led by Governor Ron DeSantis, insist that before a convicted felon can have their voting rights restored, they must pay off all associated fines. Initially, a federal judge ruled against that view, describing it as a “pay to play system,” which amounts to an illegal poll tax, a relic of the Jim Crow era. But DeSantis appealed to the notoriously conservative 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which included two judges who had previously been appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court. Many in the legal community urged the two judges to recuse themselves, but they declined to do so, violating longstanding ethics customs, to uphold DeSantis’s view of the legislation. The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld that decision, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor summarized the issue perfectly in her dissent: “The court’s order prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida… elections simply because they are poor.”

Beyond the concern that this amounts to a poll tax is the fact that in a broken bureaucracy, many convicted felons have no idea how much, if anything, they owe related to the felonies, and corrections officials don’t, either. Some felons have been told it may be years before they know.

But for those who do know how much they owe, billionaire Mike Bloomberg has helped raise millions of dollars to help them pay off their fines and have their voting rights restored at last. The state’s attorney general has responded by calling for an investigation into Bloomberg’s actions, implicitly confirming that the law has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with keeping people from voting.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Those aren’t even all the ways southern states are actively suppressing voters, particularly Black voters. North Carolina lawmakers recently passed legislation removing the last Saturday of early voting in the state, a day that 200,000 residents- many Black- voted on in 2016. That’s par for the course, where southern states that have early voting are increasingly shortening the window. As James Greer, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, once said, “The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants- they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates. It’s done for one reason and one reason only… because early voting is not good for us.”

Southerners who are able to vote have an imperative to vote out the lawmakers who have enacted and enabled this suppressive process. Things are only going to get worse until we do, as conservatives do everything they can to hold on to power in a South that is increasingly progressing past them.

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