The Voter Went Down to Georgia: The Not-So-New Problem of Minority Voter Suppression

November 6, 2018 | Megan Groves

Edited By: Noelle Curtis

The right to vote is essential to a functioning democracy. This right, however, has been infringed upon in many states, threatening the nature of democracy in America. During the 2018 midterm elections, voter suppression, which includes laws or policies that make it more challenging for people to register or to vote, has been at the forefront of the national discussion. Proponents claim that these laws are designed to prevent fraud, but, in reality, fraudulent voting is quite rare. During the 2016 election, there were only four credible cases of voter fraud, accounting for approximately 0.000002% of total votes.1 A much more prevalent issue is low voter turnout, and voter suppression laws perpetuate this problem, predominantly among minority groups.2

Voter suppression has become a prominent issue in Georgia’s gubernatorial election between Stacey Abrams, the first African American woman nominated by a major political party for governor in the United States, and Brian Kemp, Georgia’s current Secretary of State.3 To complicate the matter further, Brian Kemp’s office oversees the 2018 election process in Georgia: With a large expected turnout of African American voters in support of Stacey Abrams, it is concerning that Brian Kemp’s office has blocked many registration applications, a majority of which were submitted by minority voters.4

Minority voter suppression has a long history in the United States. It has been a significant problem since the 15th Amendment was ratified, which gave African American men the right to vote.5 Shortly thereafter, many Southern states passed laws that required voters to pay a polling tax in order to vote, which was far too expensive for former slaves.6 There were also several “white primary” laws in place, which prevented African American voters from participating in the primary elections;7 these laws were eliminated in 1944 with the Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright.8 In response, many states began requiring all voters to pass literacy tests. For example, shortly after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi passed a literacy test law requiring voters to read a section of the Mississippi State Constitution and interpret it.9 This law authorized county voter registrars to determine which answers were “reasonable,” and reject ballots they deemed were not; almost all African American voters failed, regardless of education or background.10

In 1964, the 24th Amendment eliminated poll taxes, and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act prevented literacy tests from being used as a prerequisite to voting.11 The Voting Rights Act also included a formula in Section 4(b) to determine whether or not states’ election laws would be monitored by the federal government.12 Components of this formula included whether or not districts had a voting test in place as of November 1, 1964, and if they had less than 50% voter turnout during the 1964 presidential election.13 If districts were deemed eligible for Section 5, based on the formula in Section 4, then they had to obtain permission from the federal government whenever they wished to change a voting law.14

After the 2008 election, new voter suppression laws began emerging across the United States. States such as Maine, Florida, and Ohio ended same day voter registration and limited registration drives, which minority and low income voters are twice as likely to utilize.15 Over half of African American voters in Florida, and over one third of African American voters in Georgia utilized early voting sites in 2016; states, such as Georgia and Florida, have since shortened the window of, or completely eliminated, early voting.16 Alabama, Rhode Island, and others also require  government-issued photo identification in order to vote; however, 1 in 10 Americans, and 1 in 4 African Americans, do not possess a government-issued photo ID.17 For some, photo IDs are comparable to a modern-day polling tax. Obtaining one involves driving to the nearest government agency that can issue one and potentially taking a day off of work to do so, which is not feasible for many low-income voters who do not have a photo ID.18 in some states, DMV locations and other agencies that can issue photo identification are closing in rural and low income communities, making it even more challenging for voters to obtain the necessary identification.19

Despite these incredibly recent and discriminatory laws, Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act were deemed unconstitutional and outdated in Shelby County v. Holder, ending federal oversight of elections.20 With tight races occurring across the country in 2018, many states — such as Georgia, Kansas, and North Dakota — passed more voting laws, and in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, these states are no longer being held accountable.21 North Dakota, for example, passed a law requiring voters to have a current residential addresses on their government-issued photo identification. Many Native Americans live on reservations where residential addresses do not exist, and instead use P.O. boxes, which will no longer be acceptable at the polls.22 Now, approximately 5,000 Native Americans will be prevented from voting in the 2018 election.23 In 2012, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won her seat on the US Senate by 3000 votes in a state that normally elects Republicans — this was largely attributed to Native American voters.24 Five months after her victory, several new voter laws appearing to target Native Americans were put into place.25 The Supreme Court allowed this new identification requirement to take effect on October 9, 2018, and it is expected to severely hinder Heitkamp’s chances of reelection this year, after what has already been a tight race.26

VotingMachines-Security-972438874

Georgia has become the epicenter of voter suppression during the 2018 midterm election. After closing 214 polling sites, purging 10% of registered voters from their voting rolls, restricting early voting, and using outdated polling machines deemed a security risk, the state is now embroiled in a lawsuit over their “exact match” registration law.27 Civil rights groups are focusing on the handling of 53,000 registrations placed on hold — 70% of which belong to African American voters.28 The exact match law, known as “disenfranchisement by typo,” was originally proposed in Georgia in 2009. Due to the Voting Rights Act, it was rejected by the federal government for its discriminatory nature, as minority voters were more likely to have their registrations flagged.29 However, after Shelby County v. Holder, Georgia state legislature passed this law with ease. The exact match law requires that one’s voter registration exactly match information in the state database; many registrations have been rejected for using shortened names, missing a hyphen, or using a middle initial instead of a full middle name.30 Furthermore, minority voters are more likely to have their registrations rejected, as white election workers are less likely to be familiar with spelling names of people with different backgrounds. Often, registrations are flagged due to error on the part of white election workers, and not the voters themselves.31 Flagged voters will not be able to participate in the election via mail, and will be required to present a valid photo ID at the polls, which is a challenge considering many voters do not possess an ID, or may be confused as to whether or not they are allowed to vote at all.32

In the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, which left the Voting Rights Act essentially toothless, minority voices are left unheard and democracy in the United States is left vulnerable. While voter suppression has been a factor in American elections since the end of slavery, many laws in the 1960’s created some accountability. However, the 2013 Supreme Court decision leaves our election process susceptible to blatant corruption and discrimination. Additionally, our current political climate and Trump’s Republican Party openly encourages this level of suppression. We have always been told that if we want to effect change, we must get out and vote. But what can voters do when they are repeatedly being told by their elected officials that their voices do not matter and do not count? How can anything change if the system is rigged by the very people who are supposed to represent us? How are we, the people, supposed to be represented if targeted populations are prevented from even having a say in who represents them? Moreover, why is having one’s voice heard a privilege afforded only to the white and wealthy? As the case in Georgia exemplifies, voter suppression is a massive threat to the democratic values that the United States was built upon. If we, as a society, allow this to continue, minority groups will be pushed into the periphery, and our country will slip backwards into the systems we have fought so hard to overturn.

Megan Groves is a junior at Johns Hopkins University, where she is majoring in Public Health Studies.

 

 

 


Citations

1 Pillip Bump. “There have been just four cases of voter fraud in the 2016 election.” The Washington Post. December 1, 2016. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/01/0-000002-percent-of-all-the-ballots-cast-in-the-2016-election-were-fraudulent/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a9f3212b3263

2 Jelani Cobb. “Voter-suppression tactics in the age of Trump.” The New Yorker. October 29, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/29/voter-suppression-tactics-in-the-age-of-trump

3 Astead W. Herndon. “Georgia voting begins amid accusations of voter suppression.” The New York Times. October 19, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/us/politics/georgia-voter-suppression.html

4 Fredreka Schouten. “‘Voting while black’: How activists are racing to create a midterm ‘black wave.’” CNN Politics. October 29, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/27/politics/black-pacs-in-the-midterms/index.html

5 “15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The Library of Congress. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/15thamendment.htmlz

6 Frederick Knight. “Georgia election fight shows that black voter suppression, a southern tradition, still flourishes.” PBS News Hour. October 28, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/georgia-election-fight-shows-that-black-voter-suppression-a-southern-tradition-still-flourishes

7 “Smith v Allwright: white primaries.” The Texas Politics Project. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://texaspolitics.utexas.edu/archive/html/vce/features/0503_01/smith.html

8 “U.S. reports: Smith v Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944).” The Library of Congress. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.loc.gov/item/usrep321649/

9 Bruce Hartford. “How it worked in Mississippi: Mississippi voter application and ballot (circa 1955).” Civil Rights Movement Veterans. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.crmvet.org/info/ms-test.htm

10 Frederick Knight. “Georgia election fight shows that black voter suppression, a southern tradition, still flourishes.” PBS News Hour. October 28, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/georgia-election-fight-shows-that-black-voter-suppression-a-southern-tradition-still-flourishes

11 Deborah N. Archer and Derek T. Muller. “The Twenty-Fourth Amendment.” National Constitution Center. https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-xxiv

12 “Voting Rights Act of 1965.” The United States Department of Justice. July 28, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017. https://www.justice.gov/crt/history-federal-voting-rights-laws

13 “Shelby County v. Holder.” Oyez. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2012/12-96.

14 John Schwartz. “Between the lines of the Voting Rights Act opinion.” The New York Times. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/06/25/us/annotated-supreme-court-decision-on-voting-rights-act.html?_r=0

15 “The facts about voter suppression.” ACLU. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.aclu.org/facts-about-voter-suppression

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Terry Gross. “Republican voter suppression efforts are targeting minorities, journalist says.” NPR. October 23, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/23/659784277/republican-voter-suppression-efforts-are-targeting-minorities-journalist-says

19 Brentin Mock. “Will closing Alabama DMV offices affect black voters?” The Atlantic. October 12, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/will-closing-alabama-dmv-offices-affect-black-voters/433089/

20 “Shelby County v. Holder.” Oyez. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2012/12-96

21 Terry Gross. “Republican voter suppression efforts are targeting minorities, journalist says.” NPR. October 23, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/23/659784277/republican-voter-suppression-efforts-are-targeting-minorities-journalist-says

22 Maggie Astor. “A look at where North Dakota’s voter ID controversy stands.” The New York Times. October 19, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/us/politics/north-dakota-voter-identification-registration.html

23 Terry Gross. “Republican voter suppression efforts are targeting minorities, journalist says.” NPR. October 23, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/23/659784277/republican-voter-suppression-efforts-are-targeting-minorities-journalist-says

24 Maggie Astor. “A look at where North Dakota’s voter ID controversy stands.” The New York Times. October 19, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/us/politics/north-dakota-voter-identification-registration.html

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Terry Gross. “Republican voter suppression efforts are targeting minorities, journalist says.” NPR. October 23, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/23/659784277/republican-voter-suppression-efforts-are-targeting-minorities-journalist-says

28 Dartunorro Clark. “Georgia sued for placing thousands of voter registrations on hold before the election.” NBC News. October 12, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/georgia-sued-placing-thousands-voter-registrations-hold-election-n919526

29 Astead W. Herndon and Trip Gabriel. “Showdown in Georgia governor’s race reflects a larger fight over voting rights.” The New York Times. October 15, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/us/politics/georgia-abrams-kemp-voting.html

30 Ben Nadler. “Voting rights become a flashpoint in Georgia governor’s race.” AP News. October 9, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.apnews.com/fb011f39af3b40518b572c8cce6e906c

31 Ted Enamorado. “Georgia’s ‘exact match’ law could potentially harm many eligible voters.” The Washington Post. October 20, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/10/20/georgias-exact-match-law-could-disenfranchise-3031802-eligible-voters-my-research-finds/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e875bc3d35a2

32 Ben Nadler. “Voting rights become a flashpoint in Georgia governor’s race.” AP News. October 9, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.apnews.com/fb011f39af3b40518b572c8cce6e906c

Photo Credits: Flickr – Michael Fleshman, AP 

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