Cover Image: Elliott Stallion
This November, a huge proportion of the population will be missing from the polls. In 2016, voter turnout fell to a 20-year low of 55% of eligible voters. Plenty of people are quick to blame voter indifference or uninspiring candidates, but in many cases the problem is more systemic. Aside from issues with gerrymandering, campaign finance laws, and the electoral college, there are several ways individuals are being directly hindered from participating in elections. It would be bad enough if voter suppression affected all demographics evenly, but if you’re familiar with American history, you won’t be surprised that these laws are far more likely to impede Black and Hispanic voters. Lawmakers who perpetuate these barriers stand in direct opposition to a well-functioning democracy.
In some cases, voter suppression is as direct as purging voters, where government officials strike registrations from the voter registry almost arbitrarily. Ahead of the upcoming election for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat in Texas, 2,400 online registrations were rejected only a month before the vote. In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp faces a lawsuit claiming that he purged 700,000 voters along racial lines. One report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that between 2014 and 2016, states purged 16 million voters, at a rate 33% higher than between 2006 and 2008. These purges, along with other forms of voter suppression, held significant sway in key states Trump won in 2016 such as Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Unnecessary barriers to registration are a less blatant but still powerful form of voter suppression. Anyone who has registered knows that it is a hassle, and it is easy to slip past the deadline without realizing it. One obvious solution to this problem is automatic voter registration. Oregon was the first state to roll out automatic voter registration in 2016, and their registration rate nearly quadrupled. Increasing total registered voters from 230,000 in 2012 to over 350,000 in 2016 was as simple as updating voter registration whenever Oregonians applied for or renewed their license at the DMV. Aside from improving our democracy, automatic and other forms of electronic registration save money, time, paper, and pollution from transporting mail, making them a no-brainer. However, only 12 states and DC have approved automatic voter registration, and only 36 states have fully or substantially implemented electronic registration.
In most states, including Virginia, the deadline for correcting outdated or incorrect voter information has the same deadline as voter registration. As a college undergraduate, I have to update my address information before every election because my address has changed to a new dorm or apartment each year. It feels rather arbitrary that I have to remember to change my registration weeks ahead of time, and many voters might not be aware that they have to do this. This would not be a problem if Virginia followed the 16 states that have approved election day correction of voter registration. By allowing voters to correct their information on the day they vote, previously registered voters who have moved and decide to vote after the deadline will have a chance to make their voices heard.
Voter ID laws are historically known to be among the most racist forms of suppressing the vote, affecting Black and Hispanic voters at three times the rate it affects white voters. Much like the literacy tests, not eliminated until the 1960s, that were rationalized as protecting an “educated” electorate, these voter ID laws are rationalized as a way to prevent voter fraud. In practice, they are used to target specific groups of Americans, and they ought to be eliminated. In total, 34 states require a form of ID at the polls, half of which must be specifically photo IDs. It can be very difficult and costly for some citizens to obtain a valid voter ID. Transportation barriers, travelling and waiting in line for hours, and not knowing which documents are required constitute such a high burden that many would-be voters simply give up. Not even a birth certificate suffices in some cases. Many voters who do not drive tend not to have driver’s licenses, so this law excludes people who cannot afford a car along with with many of the disabled. Because these policies limit voters along race and class lines, these laws disproportionately affect minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats. This is why states with new voter ID crackdowns were more likely to swing Republican in 2016. President Trump seems to have gotten the memo, and he recently advocated that all 50 states incorporate photo ID into their elections.
Aside from administrative obstacles, voters face unjust physical and time barriers — and no, I’m not talking about bad weather. Ahead of 2016, southern states eliminated about 868 polling locations, which they were only free to do after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The policies previously prohibited by the act were proven to target Black voters, and civil rights groups have warned that these recent closures have similarly racist motivations. Even the nature of the polling sites themselves can discriminate against some voters. Two out of three destinations inspected in 2016 had at least one obstacle for disabled voters due to lack of ramps, lack of privacy, untrained poll workers, inaccessible paths, and broken or unplugged accessible voting machines. Stemming from these barriers, voter participation among the disabled has recently declined. More accessibility oversight is required, as having two out of three polling sites compromised is a massive failure on the part of local governments.
For over a century, Americans have voted during business hours on a Tuesday. This puts an unfair burden on voters who work from 9 to 5, not to mention those who work multiple jobs or double shifts, as well as voters with children and other family members to take care of. Some congressmen have fought for a Weekend Voting Act that would move the vote to span from Saturday morning to Sunday evening. Despite concerns about our low voter participation compared to other countries and discrimination against Americans who can’t afford to miss work or leave family alone, the bill has died in committee repeatedly. Some have suggested a national holiday for voting, but this may hurt more than it helps, since many working-class voters do not get off of work for holidays. Regardless, it is clear that the current system is restrictive.
If these restrictions were not enough, one group of Americans is outright banned from voting in several states. In 2016, 6.1 million Americans were barred from voting due to a felony conviction. Included in this statistic are 7.44% of all Black Americans, who experience massive discrimination in the US criminal justice system. In Kentucky, one in four Black citizens is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. As of 2010, one third of Black American men face a felony conviction. Racist felony disenfranchisement laws date back to at least the 19th century, and their legacy today is a painful reality. In 10 states, Americans with felony convictions can permanently lose their vote, and in 20 states, this is extended to those in prison, probation, and parole. Only two states allow currently incarcerated citizens to vote. Some may object that felons committed a crime, so losing their right to vote is a fair punishment. However, convicts already serve their time, and the loss of this fundamental right is a disproportionate punishment that may be left unconsidered when judges determine the severity of a sentence. A report found that 72% of Americans support restoring the vote to felons after prison, yet several states continue this tradition. These voters have first-hand knowledge of the injustices that plague the American justice system. Despite this, and despite the fact that criminal justice policies directly affect their quality of life, their vote is silenced.
This list is incomplete. The tactics used to discourage and disenfranchise voters are varied and pervasive. When we tell voters that they are not wanted at the polls, we put our republic in peril. Even in cases where these laws are not racist, ableist, or classist, though most are, they still cost our democracy a great deal of integrity. It is easy for voters to look at national turnout rates and scoff at nonvoters or blame them for allowing injustice and corruption to go unchecked. This opinion erases the wide range of obstacles Americans face along their path to the polls. When democracy was born, it was limited to only a subset of the population. Though we have formally granted the vote in our country to most of the citizenry over the centuries, systemic barriers remain. We need to legitimize our voting process and expand our vision of democracy beyond its original limitations.