With the 2020 presidential election barely a month away, many voters are already jaded, frustrated, and overwhelmed by America’s complex political processes. With the president seeding doubt on the legitimacy of the mail-in ballot system, destabilizing the U.S. Postal Service, and even floating the idea of employing armed poll watchers on Election Day, you may be anxious about how these obstacles may affect voters, especially in the midst of a nationwide pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about voter suppression, how to identify it, and how to push back to make sure your vote is counted during one of the most critical elections of the decade.
According to Jessica Levinson, a political commentator and clinical professor of law at Loyola Law School, voter suppression can take two forms: direct and indirect. Direct voter suppression techniques are “laws that actively make it more difficult for people to vote, such as voter ID laws, laws that prevent same-day voter registration, or laws that prevent early registration,” Levinson tells Elite Daily.
Indirect voter suppression, however, can be more insidious. “It could be psychological warfare, so to speak,” says Levinson. “[Indirect voter suppression] could be leaders telling you that it’s very dangerous to vote by mail, or that there’s a lot of voter fraud, or that you can’t trust the voting systems. Now, when the president of the United States is saying there’s rampant voter fraud, which is not true … that could absolutely lead to fewer people deciding to take part in the process at all. At a certain point, people kind of just throw up their hands and say, ‘There’s something corrupt about the system, I don’t wanna take part in it.’”
Indirect voter suppression tactics, such as voter disillusionment and fatigue, coupled with direct suppression strategies like partisan-based gerrymandering, discriminatory voter ID laws, and now, concerns about the U.S. Postal Service, have effectively exhausted America’s population of young voters before they can even shape their voting habits. Experts say that’s the whole point of indirect voter suppression tactics. “It’s not that young people are indifferent or inattentive to an election — they are purposefully excluded, not only through voter suppression, but through the ways that our political systems operate,” explains Sonja Diaz, the founding executive director of the the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“This country, historically, has an issue with not taking the needs of young people into account. Taking young voters for granted, or dismissing them, is not going to expand our electorate,” she tells Elite Daily. “We see young people mobilizing on the streets for climate change, to get guns out of our schools, and to stop the attacks on and unnecessary loss of Black lives at the hands of law enforcement — people are engaged. Now it’s up to our systems, our parties, and our government to translate that engagement into an election.”
Direct voter suppression, meanwhile, is the legal and political tactics that prevent people from casting their votes. These can include things like restrictive voter ID laws, purges of “inactive” voters from registration rolls, or closures of polling places in certain neighborhoods, including college campuses, creating bottlenecks and impossibly long lines to cast a ballot. The tactics often hit younger and minority voters hard, and demographically, those groups are more likely to favor the Democratic party. According to a 2018 report from Pew Research Center, 72% of voters aged 18 to 29, as well as 92% of Black voters and 72% of Hispanic/Latinx voters of all ages, supported Democratic candidates during the 2016 election.
While changes to election structures can look innocuous on paper, in practice, they can cause big problems. For example, on Oct. 1, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide order that limits all 254 counties to one single mail-in ballot drop-off location each. Since some Texas counties span over 6,000 square miles, residents may have to drive over an hour to reach their county’s designated ballot drop-off location. That very same day, at least three different voting rights advocacy groups sued Abbott over the proclamation, alleging Abbott’s new requirements would place undue burden on elderly, low-income, and minority voters: “They will have to travel further distances, face longer waits, and risk exposure to COVID-19, in order to use the single ballot return location in their county,” stated the lawsuit, which is still pending. In a statement to KXAN, Abbot's office said the order had in fact expanded voting access by allowing a longer time period in which voters could drop off ballots. As of Oct. 6, the order has forced the closure of all but one ballot drop-off location in some of Texas’ biggest and most diverse cities, including Houston, Austin, and San Antonio — leaving only three open locations for over 4.2 million registered voters.
The most important thing is for people not to get discouraged.
According to Diaz, "direct" voter suppression disproportionately affects people of color. “Historically, voter suppression is the idea that some people in this country shouldn’t vote because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or the intersection of those different identities,” Diaz tells Elite Daily. “When we didn’t have the Voting Rights Act of 1865, voter suppression could look like literacy tests and poll taxes that were arbitrary, but had a purposeful intent to discriminate against Black voters in particular.” In 2013, section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was designed to crack down on suppression tactics against Black and minority voters by requiring federal oversight of changes to voting laws, was struck down by the Supreme Court. Since then, at least 41 states have initiated some type of restrictive voting legislation, citing “voter fraud” as the main reason for introducing these laws — a phenomenon that, statistically, almost never happens.
In a March 30 interview with Fox & Friends, Trump admitted a higher voter turnout would harm the Republican party. When referencing a coronavirus stimulus proposal from Democrats that would have greatly increased funding for absentee and vote-by-mail options, Trump said, “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” The White House did not respond to Elite Daily’s request for comment at the time.
“Absentee voting and the use of mail-in ballots has now been weaponized by conservatives in the Republican party to be the new vehicle for ‘voter fraud,’ despite years of empirical evidence proving [the opposite]," says Diaz. "There is no voter fraud. What we’re seeing is a direct and deliberate attempt to suppress minority voters in the midst of COVID-19.”
So how can you, as a voter, combat these encroaching voter suppression techniques? According to Julie Ebenstein, the senior staff attorney of the Voting Rights Project at ACLU, “The most important thing is for people not to get discouraged.”
Create a voting plan, and get started to make sure you’re registered as soon as possible — the earlier you start preparing, the more time you have to address any issues or obstacles that you may need to overcome as a voter. “[Voting] is your right,” adds Ebenstein, “your fundamental right.”
Your voice matters. So does your vote. Make sure both are heard and counted in the 2020 election by registering to vote right now.
Jessica A. Levinson, J.D., clinical professor of law and director of the Public Service Institute at Loyola Law School
Sonja Diaz, J.D., M.P.P, founding executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Julie Ebenstein, J.D., senior staff attorney at the ACLU Voting Rights Project