The 2018 midterms were a hotbed of drama: from the female and minority candidates who ran for office in droves to dramatic flips of seats long held by one party or the other, there was plenty to watch in the lead-up to Election Day. But one of the most prominent — and concerning — issues was the allegations of voter suppression around the country, where eligible voters said they were prevented from casting ballots. So can voter suppression be solved? Well, there are some steps that can be taken — both by legislators and your average concerned citizen.
Thanks to the midterm elections, House Democrats, now in the majority, have signaled their intent to investigate the elections in Georgia and other key races where suppression was said to have taken place. NPR reported on Nov. 12 that House Democrats will be looking to pass major legislation at the start of the new year, in part to strengthen the election process.
"It's three very basic things that I think the public wants to see," Rep. John Sarbanes told NPR of H.R. 1. The multi-pronged legislation, H.R. 1, would reportedly push for reform on political campaign contributions, changes to the redistricting process, automatic voter registration, and a reboot of some components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed legal barriers that made it harder for African Americans to vote. Some of these provisions would potentially chip away at the problem of voter suppression, but it's only part of an ongoing solution.
Voter suppression can take the form of anything, intentional or otherwise, that keeps legitimate voters from casting a ballot — whether it's an overly complicated process to register, limited access to polls, or even an atmosphere that makes them feel afraid or discouraged from voting. This can disproportionately affect groups like young people, the elderly, and minorities. In North Dakota, for example, Native American voters were reportedly left scrambling to get proper identification ahead of the midterm election because of a new law requiring voters' IDs to have street addresses, which many living on reservations didn't have.
Julie Ebenstein, Senior Staff Attorney for the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spoke to Elite Daily on the issue. She sees several ways for the problem to be addressed: first, by continuing to call out suppressive measures when they do happen, and second, by taking steps to make the voting process more user-friendly.
Often, Ebenstein says, laws like the one in North Dakota "are solutions in search of a problem," whose stated aim may be to to prevent voter fraud (which hasn't been found to be a substantive problem in U.S. elections). But "as a legal matter," she says, "when the effect is going to be to constitutionally disenfranchise people, the [law's] intent is not relevant."
To combat this, Ebenstein says lawmakers need to ensure that voting laws are in line with citizens' rights. Though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to protect against such barriers, since 2010, 24 states have enacted some form of law restricting voter registration or access. This is in part thanks to the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder decision, which stripped requirements that states and locales with a history of voting discrimination get federal approval for any changes to their election policy. Since then, Ebenstein says, voter restriction laws have been able to pass with limited recourse — as she says, unfortunately, "There's no do-over in elections."
Legislators, for their part, "should make themselves aware of the effect of the laws they're about to pass," she says, to ensure that they won't be suppressive. In looking to pass a law requiring certain kinds of IDs, for example, "You can determine what percentage of registered voters in your state have that ID," she says.
As for making elections more accessible, Ebenstein is in support of the H.R. 1 component of getting automatic registration at the national level. She also advocates for other steps to modernize the voting and registration process, like vote-by-mail, same-day registration, and early voting. Many of these changes, she says, are made at the state level — and it's average citizens who can make them happen.
"Citizens can encourage their own state to modernize the way that they run elections. That would be the most direct route to making positive changes if Congress is not able to do it," she notes. She cites states like Florida, which just last week approved a midterm referendum to allow former felons to vote. Efforts like these could be done in conjunction with federal-level changes to speed reform.
Election reform advocates have also pushed to include overhauling the redistricting process to combat racial gerrymandering, which can allow congressional districts to be drawn to benefit political parties and to dilute the strength of certain votes. For example, district lines may be drawn right through a predominantly minority neighborhood, and fill the rest of the district with non-minority voters, whose votes might outweigh those of their neighbors. Another possible solution is employing ranked-choice voting (which some states already use) as a way to help minorities or smaller-party candidates get elected by selecting candidates in order of preference.
Still, Ebenstein doesn't foresee the problem going away overnight. While citizens' initiatives are improving conditions in some states, other states are simultaneously passing laws that worsen them. "There's a huge variety of suppressive measures," she says. "There are going to continue to be those efforts as well, and litigation in response." Groups like the ACLU are continuing to push back against laws they see as suppressive, and in states like Georgia, have been successful in their legal endeavors, forcing the state to include in its tally ballots which had been thrown out over a signature mismatch.
Ebenstein hopes it's not a zero sum game forever, though, and that the push by everyday voters to make change eventually wins out. "I would hope that [in light of those initiatives], representatives realize that what people want is to register, vote, and have their votes counted." As for whether they do: the H.R. 1 bill, Sarbanes told NPR, will "demonstrate that we hear that message loud and clear."