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  • Lea Kapur

Voter Suppression in the 2020 Election

Voter suppression has become a running theme of the 2020 presidential election. On Thursday, October 1, 2020 the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, ordered multiple mail-in ballot drop-off sites to be closed due to the lack of available poll watchers. Court rulings nationwide have changed how states can count ballots and when they have to stop. Simultaneously, President Trump has issued multiple statements, claiming that mail-in ballots will increase the chances of voter fraud, and result in a rigged election. This raises the question: is voter fraud a real concern or are these claims being used as a way to limit an individual’s vote? In order to evaluate these modern-day tactics, the recent history of voter suppression in the United States must be considered.

In Shelby v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote to invalidate a “coverage formula” that required certain areas to pass a federal review under the Voting Rights Act. In essence, areas of the United States that have a history suppressing individual’s vote through legislation had to pass a federal review, called “pre-clearance” in order to implement changes to election and voting laws in that jurisdiction. This pre-clearance provided a check on areas that had a history with voter suppression to ensure that voter rights are protected. Entire states that were covered under the Voting Rights Act include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. States that were covered partially include North Carolina, California, Florida, New York, and Michigan.

Another issue that has arisen to prominence is voter fraud, the illegal interference with the election process in order to manipulate the outcome of an election. Voter fraud is historically very uncommon. A 2014 study published in The Washington Post found 31 cases of impersonation, an example of voter fraud, (pretending to be someone who you are not) took place between 2000 and 2014. Only 31 cases of voter fraud were reported over a 14-year period, which averages out to a total of 2.21 cases per year. The justification of strict voting laws to prevent voter fraud, a rare problem, is thus used as a tactic by politicians to prevent people from voting to stay in power.

A study done at the University of San Diego reveals that tactics that suppress an individual’s right to vote disproportionally affect people of color, women, queer and trans people, individuals who have disabilities, low-income households, elderly people, and college students. According to this study, these groups tend to vote Democrat and the laws often “skew” elections to favor Republicans. That is not to say that the Democrats have never suppressed an individual’s vote in the past or present, but the study’s findings highlight the Republican party as the main culprit behind contemporary voter suppression laws.

One of the most recent examples of voter suppression was the Governor Greg Abbott’s (R-TX) order that multiple drop-off sites be closed. The justification provided to the public was that drop sites were closed because there are limited poll watchers. Poll watchers are individuals at election sites who help prevent voter fraud. Although drop-off ballot sites have become a point of controversy this election, including one that was burned down in Copley Square in Boston days before the election, there does not exist reputable data proving drop-off ballot sites lead to mass voter fraud.

Voters drop their ballots at a ballot dropbox outside Government Center in Boston (Photo: BPR/Justin Dynia)

President Donald Trump has been largely leading attacks on mail-in ballots for months. Trump has issued multiple claims against mail-in ballots. On Monday, June 22, 2020 the President stated in a tweet that “because of mail-in ballots, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nation's history.” In his speech on election night at 2:30 a.m. EST in which he prematurely claimed victory, he decried the Democrats’ attempt to “steal” the election with a system of mass voter fraud using mail-in ballots. This fallacious declaration has set the narrative for the coming days that will be rife with unprecedented false claims, court challenges, and national outcry.

The use of mail-in ballots have increased dramatically this year because of concerns for public health and safety, in light of COVID-19. According to the Election Trade Commission, 25.9% of American voters sent their ballots in by mail in the 2018 midterm. According to the New York Times, 64 million Americans so far have voted by mail, nearly double as many as 2016. This also proves that mail-in ballots are not a new sensation, which raised questions as to why Trump is against the use of mail-in ballots for the upcoming Election. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center illustrates that less than 20% of Trump supporters plan on voting by mail this fall, compared to the almost 60% of voters who plan to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden. In Pennsylvania, three times as many mail-in voters voted for Biden than Trump. On Wednesday, August 26, 2020, the FBI told the public that there is no evidence of a coordinated plan of voter fraud to occur in relation to voting by mail. Despite what Trump says, voting by mail has not resulted in increased voter fraud and remains a secure way to cast a ballot.

Although not a primary concern of the president, felony disenfranchisement is also a popular voter suppression tactic. Felony disenfranchisement is the restriction of a felon's right to vote. In 11 states felons lose their right to vote indefinitely, depending on the crime, or require the governor to pardon their crime (forgive the charge of the crime), and they face a waiting period after their sentencing. In 16 states, felons lose the right to vote while in jail but are restored once they are released. In 21 states, the largest number, felons lose their right to vote while imprisoned, for a period of time after release, and then their right to vote is restored. However, in most cases where felons owe fines, they must fully pay off those fines or fees before their right is restored. An important and recent example of felony disenfranchisement is Florida’s Fourth Amendment. In 2018, Florida passed Amendment Four, a ballot initiative that allows felons to vote. Since most felons (up to 80%) have outstanding charges, the passage of Amendment Four did not do much. California passed Proposition 17 to allow the same on November 3. However, if a felon has an outstanding fee, they cannot vote.The reason that felony disenfranchisement is such an issue is that a 2010 study from the University of Georgia found that although felons account for 8% of the US population, they account for 33% of the Black population. Therefore, felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects Blacks and their ability to vote, a form of voter suppression targets a minority.

Another form of voter suppression is voter ID laws. 36 states require specific voter identification that must be issued by the government. The two largest barriers to obtaining this special identification card are access and cost. Some questions related to access are:

  1. How will you get to an ID office?

  2. When is the office open?

  3. Do you have to take time off work?

The cost one is a bit more complex. While government officials may claim that an ID is free, there are often hidden costs such as the requirement of other officials documents that cost money. Thus, the barriers to obtaining government-issued identification that is needed to voter is another form of voter suppression.

Graphic: Demand The Vote

Empirical data and 2020 election results makes it clear that voter fraud is not a rampant issue in the United States. Allegations of such will still dominate media headlines in the days to come and will likely shape who the next President of the United States will be. The larger concern should be voter suppression and the methods which elected officials use to disenfranchise millions of Americans. Understanding how officials may use tactics to suppress your vote is important. It allows an individual to call their representatives out, and make sure their voice is heard. Voting is a right, not a privilege, and should be treated as such.


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