The Fight Against Voter Suppression and its Role in the 2020 Presidential Election
By Thomas Holt Russell
In 2018, Stacey Abrams went to her polling location, and officials told her she could not vote because their records indicated she had already voted. She was able to solve the problem and was eventually allowed to vote. Abrams was running for governor against then Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who had purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls before that election. Abrams lost in a closely contested race, but she did not disappear. Instead, she stayed in the political arena to fight against voter suppression by creating Fair Fight, a national voters rights organization headquartered in Georgia.
LaTosha Brown ran for Alabama’s State Board of Education in 1998. The closely contested election was against a white republican. When the smoke cleared, she found out that officials certified the election in favor of her incumbent opponent. However, they did not count 800 ballots, which were found by someone in a safe that belonged to the sheriff of Wilcox County, who had claimed to have forgotten that he placed the ballots there. It was too late for voting officials to count the votes. Brown became energized and started the Black Voters Matters (BVM) organization, dedicated to increasing the power of communities through effective voting.
There was never a point in American history when legislation alone has been enough to ensure all citizens’ voting rights were upheld. Even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped increased voter turnout in Mississippi from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach made a prophetic statement when he testified to Congress, “We recognize that increased voting strength might encourage a shift in the tactics of discrimination. Once significant numbers of Blacks could vote, communities could still throw up obstacles to discourage those voters or make it difficult for a Black to win elective office.”
Several loopholes have been used throughout the years to suppress voter turnout. Literacy tests required of voters in some states were not so subtle ways to stop Blacks and poor voters from participating in elections. Poll taxes were used as barriers to voting for a good portion of the Black population, and grandfather clauses restricting voter eligibility were very useful in suppressing the vote. These measures defied the constitution without breaking the law since race was never mentioned, even though they were not race neutral. The Voting Rights Act was designed to ban these practices. Still, just as Attorney General Katzenbach predicted over 50 years ago, new obstacles have been put in place to discourage voters and make voting more difficult for African Americans.
In recent years, common forms of voter suppression, particularly popular with Republicans, are purging voter rolls, moving polling sites to unfriendly locations, challenging signatures, making registration difficult, and imposing new rules at the last possible moment. All of these obstacles affect poor people the most. Many of those people are Latino, Native Americans, students, elderly, and African Americans.
During 2020, voter suppression happened when ballot drop boxes were removed, making it difficult for some voters to drop off their ballots because of the greater distance. Voting was hindered when new voter forms had to be filled out to verify identities. In Georgia, there were two versions of the forms, one filled out manually and another filled out and uploaded on computers. Requiring voters to come to crowded polling places to fill out forms has the potential to expose voters to COVID-19, and related equipment frequently did not work correctly causing the process to take more time or repeated visits, which dissuaded many from filling out forms. Thus, the risk and inconvenience resulted in their inability to vote.
To further complicate matters, the spread of misinformation especially over the internet has impacted voter turnout. In 2001, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance was held in Durban, South Africa. A report was passed around during the conference that showed evidence of how the internet is being used as the new way to spread racist ideas. The report revealed over 60,000 white supremacists who had used rhetoric against Black people. In the 19 years since, the situation appears only to have worsened.
Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been a welcome tool for hate groups and others who desire to spread disinformation. Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, stated, “We are deeply concerned that Facebook is now being weaponized, will be weaponized in the coming weeks, and possibly even after the November 3rd…to drive anti-democratic dynamics to undermine the results of the vote.”
Both domestic and foreign entities specifically target the African American population, especially Black males, to spread misinformation as a tactic designed to cast doubt on the voting process. That coupled with the apparent support of Trump by celebrity rappers such as 50 Cent, Little Wayne, and Ice Cube influenced the Black male vote, sometimes turning them off to voting at all.
Voter suppression warps democracy. It makes our nation, even the idea of our nation, the epitome of hypocrisy. An example is voter identification laws that favor one or more political parties over others. Profound structural barriers are purposely designed to filter out Black and Latino voters.
Abrams Fair Fight organization works to dismantle voter suppression through litigation, legislation, and advocacy. The organization filed a historic civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, alleging voter disenfranchisement. The group also exposed corruption in the form of legislation that hurt voter turnout. Most importantly, Fair Fight organized a strong network of activists that strengthens groups’ resolve and gives them power to challenge voter suppression.
Abrams has energized and empowered marginalized voters in Georgia and across the United States. In no small part, she played a significant role in the Biden-Harris win this past election.
In an NPR report, Abrams stated, “In the wake of the election, my mission was to figure out what work could I do, even if I didn’t have the title of governor. What work could I do to enhance or protect our democracy? Because voting rights is the pinnacle of power in our country.”
According to Brown, “All of it really boils down to the organizing. That is the way that you win elections is organized power.”
She and Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright spent the last few months registering voters in Black neighborhoods in the South and Midwest. The organization aims to increase not only voter registration, but also voter turnout.
We live in times that will surely go down as among the most tumultuous in America’s history. We are dying in record numbers because of the COVID-19 pandemic; we have the highest unemployment rate in years; we are suffering from economic woes as businesses struggle under public health restrictions; an exponential rise in white supremacist activities is dividing our country; police are killing unarmed Black people; and at this writing, a racist United States President refuses to acknowledge that he lost a fair and honest election and is refusing to ensure a peaceful transition of power.
Through all of this turmoil, one thread is holding the nation together: the ability and power to vote. Even if change is slow and the norms and civility that is usually afforded our elected officials are rapidly disintegrating before our eyes, the power of voting is still the central pillar of our democracy.
Things may look dire, but democracy is not dead yet, though it is being challenged. Voting rights champions like Abrams and Brown are focused on helping our national make it through these challenging times. These two women certainly had a big hand in the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.