Voter suppression in midterms
It's easy to think that the fight for voting rights ended with the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments, giving voting rights to African-Americans and women, respectively. Although these rights have been secured on paper for over a century, the fight to allow all Americans the right to vote has never ended. Politicians in many states have enacted laws undermining this right by making it more difficult for certain people — mostly those with minority backgrounds — to vote. We are unfortunately reminded of this every election, and the 2018 midterms are shaping up to be no different.
Last week, North Dakota made headlines for choosing to uphold a recently-passed state law that requires proof of identification with a current residential address in order to vote. This might not seem especially draconian on the surface; after all, isn’t that just a normal ID card? However, North Dakota has a population of over 30,000 Native Americans, the majority of whom live on reservations and, as a result, lack standard mailing addresses. If no special provisions are made to allow Native Americans to vote (and as of now, one week before the elections, no such thing has happened), most of the state’s Native population will be turned away at polling places. The existence of this law might seem a little bit less suspicious if North Dakota’s Senate race wasn’t so easily tippable; in 2012, Democratic candidate Heidi Heitkamp won the election by just 2,936 votes, and just a fraction of the 30,000 potential Native American votes could change the result of the election. The recent law was passed by Republicans, who are, at the moment, fighting to replace Heitkamp this November. It’s easy to see that this is no coincidence. This doesn’t even begin to mention how preventing Native Americans from voting does nothing but perpetuate the attitude that the U.S. government has shown towards the indigenous population, apathetic at best and hostile at worst.
But the story of voter suppression in the 2018 midterms didn’t start in North Dakota. The week before last, Georgia appeared in the news for even more blatant and egregious voter suppression. Georgia is also the site of another potentially-pivotal election; their race for the governorship is currently rated as a toss-up, with a difference in the polls of only 0.8 percent between the two front-runners. Again, it’s difficult to give state officials in Georgia the benefit of the doubt after it was discovered that 53,000 voter registration applications had been denied by Georgia’s secretary of state. These applications were held back because they failed to comply with the state’s “exact match” law. This means that minor discrepancies in, for example, driver’s license numbers, between what is written on a registration form and what is present in state records are enough to invalidate the entire form. Similarly to North Dakota, the circumstances in which this is happening make this case all the more suspicious. Brian Kemp, who oversees elections in Georgia as the Secretary of State, also happens to be the Republican candidate for governor this year. And the 53,000 applications that were denied mostly belonged to African-Americans, who generally are more likely to vote for the Democratic party. This doesn’t take much close reading: a politician is abusing his power to tip an election in his (and his party’s favor) by infringing on the constitutional rights of his constituents. Yet again, this voter suppression keeps the cycle of African-American under-representation going strong.
Georgia and North Dakota are two standout examples of voter suppression taking place in 2018, but they’re far from the only ones. Arkansas, Missouri, and New Hampshire have passed new laws in the last two years making it harder for people to vote. Now, you might think that we should be more stringent about who gets to vote; after all, we don’t want people who aren’t supposed to be voting illegally influencing our elections. But this fear simply isn’t supported by any facts. Voter fraud is essentially nonexistent, despite politicians (all the way up to our President) consistently using it as justification to make voting difficult. A 2014 study in The Washington Post examined one billion votes cast between 2000 and 2014 and found only 31 instances of genuine fraud. We hear claims from President Trump that three million undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 presidential election, but another examination by The Washington Post found exactly four cases of certain voter fraud.
We remember from U.S. History classes the poll taxes and literacy tests that kept recently-freed slaves from voting in the 1890s and 1900s. But unlike these plainer forms of discrimination, like Jim Crow laws, we never got rid of voter suppression. If anything, voter suppression requires even more attention now, since the methods our representatives use to keep people away from polls are far more covert than they were a century ago. Voter suppression strikes at the heart of already marginalized and under-represented communities. If anything is to change, those of us who can vote must use our position of relative power and privilege to lift up those who aren’t being heard.