By: Sophie Hart
As the 2020 election bears down in the midst of a global pandemic, the precarity of our core American democratic process has become unsettlingly apparent. Across the country, early voting sites have been overwhelmed, and voters have been forced to wait up to eight hours to cast their ballots. In Texas, a court ruled it legal for each county to have but one ballot drop box, and Republicans in a number of states are attempting to bar clerks from counting ballots received after election day. And while a landmark 2018 ballot proposal in Florida should have re-enfranchised hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people, the state’s Republican legislature quickly passed laws requiring that they pay off all court fees before registering, which has been roundly criticized as a poll tax. These unmistakable tactics of voter suppression—which are by no means new—disproportionately impact and disenfranchise poor and non-white voters.
Historically, Republican lawmakers have employed a range of tactics to secure and maintain political power at the state and federal level. Voter suppression, in its many forms, has served a critical role in this project, a project of systematic silencing of the civic voice of marginalized communities. Voter suppression laws, as a category, encompass all those that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots: laws that require official identification to vote as well as laws that limit same-day registration, voter registration drives, early voting, and absentee voting. In 2019, 25 states passed laws increasing voter restrictions. The common justification that these laws reduce voter fraud has been widely debunked—actual voter fraud is essentially zero. Voter restriction laws, however, do have a serious impact: they decrease voter turnout in majority-minority communities and maintain the political dominance of a predominantly white, wealthy, capitalist class.
Thus, it was no accident that, after historic turnout of Black and Hispanic voters in 2008 led to the election of Barack Obama, there was a swift and drastic increase in voter suppression laws. The election of our country’s first African-American president was met with a broad, conservative, racist backlash: an increase in white supremacist hate groups, the “Birther Movement,” the emergence of the deeply nativist Tea Party, and concurrently, effective conservative political organizing to implement laws to restrict access to voting. This political organizing effort has deep pockets and robust institutional backing: The Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is responsible for authoring many of these laws.
The political agents that stand to gain from voter suppression laws won a seismic judicial victory in 2013 when the Supreme Court heard Shelby County v. Holder. The court found a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, effectively stripping Congress of the right to review any changes to voting laws at the state and local level in localities with a history of discriminatory voting practices. This case allowed many Voter ID laws and other voting restrictions to go into effect for the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential election.
This systematic effort to disenfranchise non-white voters has a deep history in American politics. Indeed, these strategies have perpetuated the violence of imperialism and slavery for centuries. For example, after the Civil War, Reconstruction threatened the balance of power of the white, landowning elite. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, stated that (male) citizens of the United States have the right to vote regardless of their race; for the first time, African American men could vote, and thus threatened to radically alter southern politics.
In response, a far reaching strategy emerged to undermine Reconstruction laws and amendments, both within and outside of politics. The Ku Klux Klan grew quickly in influence through the late 19th century, inflicting terror on African-American communities in part to prevent them from attempting to take part in political processes; this was often tolerated or even sanctioned by police departments. Former Confederates passed laws in legislatures throughout the South requiring poll taxes, grandfather clauses, property requirements, and literacy tests, with many of these laws appearing in some northern states as well. These strategies successfully advanced the principal aim of white, wealthy landowners: regaining their grip on the levers of power by silencing the will of Black Americans. Indeed, we should understand these strategies, and voter suppression efforts today, as acts of state silencing.
State silencing, the practice of employing mechanisms of state power to systematically disempower a marginalized minority, can take many forms: physical (police violence against African Americans), geographical (dispossession and forced removal of American Indians to reservations), and educational (exclusion of narratives from school curricula that tell the stories of oppressed groups within the United States and the world). My focus is on the legal and political issue of voter suppression as a form of state silencing.
Silencing results in exclusion, depriving people of voice and power in a country that claims everyone’s voice is heard. Voter suppression keeps people from being able to engage in the expression of political voice. Initially only landowning, white men were included in the voting process. While the progressive expansion of voting rights throughout the 19th and 20th centuries theoretically enfranchised all Americans over age 18, the forces of state silencing have kept poor voters and voters of color from always accessing these purported rights.
The notion that the US is a bastion of liberty serves to mask the reality that the US is a settler empire. It is based upon settlers expanding power over land and controlling that power at the expense of others But, the dominant frame of the country is one which promotes a narrative that the US is the “land of the free.” As a result, when voter suppression occurs, it is framed as an anomaly. But it should be understood as entirely consistent with a long history of systematic silencing of marginalized groups.
Possibilities for Inclusive Membership and Democratic Pluralism
There are a number of policy instruments that can be employed to combat this silencing. Local movements in connection with multi-state coalitions can work toward broad changes through local organizing efforts. These can lead to ballot proposals to change districting rules and the ways that states handle elections. Activists and advocacy organizations can aim towards overturning unjust laws in the courts.
Immediately after the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, which voter suppression efforts likely helped hand to Republican Brian Kemp, Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate, started an NGO called Fair Fight, focused on fighting against voter suppression through litigation, legislation, and advocacy. This method, which involves collecting information from people across the state about issues such as polling station lines, misinformation from polling officials, and scrubbing of names from registration lists, has proven particularly effective, and can serve as a model for such efforts across the US.
Next steps can be taken from there in the courts—as was done in North Carolina concerning its Voter ID law, which the appellate court struck down claiming the law unconstitutionally targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Ballot proposals can be utilized to change states’ voting procedures—a proposal on the ballot in California this election would re-enfranchise parolees. Direct support for voters in areas with high rates of suppression and public information campaigns from advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union raise awareness of voter suppression. This work, while slow, can be effective. To combat state silencing in future elections, and meaningfully empower marginalized communities in the US, such efforts must be expanded dramatically.
Photo of a line to vote in New York City in November 2012 by Jeff DaPuzzo
Sophie Hart is a second-year Master of Public Policy student with a focus on international policy. Her policy interest areas include power and voice, peace processes, labor rights in global supply chains, and human rights. Prior to starting her degree at Ford, she worked as a social studies teacher in Michigan and served in the Peace Corps in Rwanda. Sophie is the chair for international social and cultural affairs on the International Policy Student Association board.