Ahead of midterm elections, voter suppression still looms at large
Just weeks before the upcoming November midterm elections, an NBC News/Marist poll predicted a virtual tie in support for Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp as they battle over an open governor’s seat for the state of Georgia. As the race progresses, the rest of the nation has awakened to the significant political implications that the outcome of this particular battle can have. A victory for Stacey Abrams, for instance, would not only bring the first Democratic governor to represent to mostly Republican-leaning state of Georgia since 1998, but can also welcome the first African American female governor in United States history.
It is therefore no wonder that those closely following this consequential election, especially Georgia residents themselves, were so disconcerted by a recent Associated Press report that revealed about 53,000 voter registration applications were placed on hold by the office of Georgia’s Secretary of State. Even more worrisome was the fact that 70 percent of the applicants on hold were African American. These delays were a result of Georgia’s strict “exact match” policy, which stalls voter registration applications if they even slightly differ from personal information in other government records, such as by a simple spelling error or a forgotten hyphen. To add insult to injury, the secretary of state behind this policy is none other than Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp.
Voter suppression has a long, infamous history in U.S. politics. The passage of the 15th Amendment in 1869 granted citizens of every race, especially previously disenfranchised African Americans, the right to vote. While this allowed African Americans to attain an unprecedented level of civic involvement, southern whites soon found ways to circumvent the Constitution to prevent blacks from voting. Violent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized and intimidated blacks. Poll taxes and literacy tests repelled a mostly poor and illiterate African American population. Grandfather clauses and gerrymandering exploited legal loopholes to give an advantage to white voters.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 drastically improved the electoral representation of African Americans--black voter registration in Mississippi alone jumped from 6.7% to 74.2% from 1965 to 1988. Yet, despite all the progress that has been made, mounting evidence suggests that the path to free and fair elections remains a long one, and may even be getting longer.
One of the more notorious examples of “modern-era” voter suppression occurred in the 2000 presidential race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. As Election Day drew to a close, neither candidate secured an electoral majority. The deciding state in the election was ultimately Florida, where the race came exceptionally close, with Bush carrying a lead of only 2000 votes. However, an inefficient and irregular polling system in the critical swing state impacted an otherwise fair outcome. Old, dysfunctional equipment was used some locations. Unauthorized police checkpoints hampered black voters. Non-felons were removed from voter registration lists. The U.S. Commission in Civil Rights found that in Florida counties with higher black populations, such as Gadsden County, black votes had higher ballot rejection rates. In the face of such unreliable outcomes, the Florida Supreme Court even ordered a manual recount of votes. However, the US Supreme Court struck down this ruling, thus securing Bush’s triumph.
More recently, in 2013, the Supreme Court overturned a law that previously required states to obtain federal approval before amending their voting laws. This decision has given states particularly known for voter suppression more freedom to chip away at the protections of the 15th Amendment. For instance, a mere 24 hours after this ruling, Alabama reinstated a policy requiring photo identification to vote. Soon after, other states followed suit. This trend is concerning, as more states are able to codify voter suppression through technically “constitutional” or “legal” measures. Studies have shown that voter ID laws can be a popular method of voter suppression, adopted by 34 states as of 2015. While voter turnout rates are lower among most U.S. minority groups in the presence of strict voter ID laws, Hispanic Americans are hardest hit, voting in general elections at a rate that is 7.1 percentage points lower in strict voter ID states than in other states. The effects of strict voter ID laws also fall along partisan lines, lowering voter turnout rates more among liberals and Democrats than conservatives and Republicans.
States have also looked beyond voter ID laws to impede voting. Alabama and Georgia, for example, regularly “purge” voters from their voter registration rolls after a certain period of inactivity.
The pervasiveness of voter suppression in the U.S. even decades after Voter Rights Act was passed is a deep malaise that afflicts our society. While many may look to voting, especially in this year’s midterm election, as a panacea for the government’s previous poor decisions, our country must address the possibility that even this basic function of our democracy is in jeopardy.