On March 25th, the state of Georgia passed new voting legislation that ultimately makes it more difficult to vote. The Republican-led senate introduced more stringent measures in the name of reducing voter fraud, including requiring absentee voters to submit a driver’s license number or other additional verification measures, despite over 200,000 Georgians lacking these required documents. While the new laws will expand the early voting period for general elections, they will also result in the removal of drop boxes throughout the state. It will also be illegal for volunteers to provide food and water to voters waiting in notoriously long lines.
This legislation has emerged during a rhetoric espoused by many Republicans, who falsely claim that the 2020 Presidential election was “stolen” from former President Donald Trump. Georgia in particular proved to be a crucial state, and its runoff elections are responsible for the Democratic control of the US Senate.
A lawsuit filed by voting rights organizations claims that this new legislation violates the Voting Rights Act and will further disenfranchise Black voters in Georgia. However, Georgia is not the only state facing stricter voting laws. Since March 24 2021, Republican senators in 47 states have attempted to introduce over 350 bills that threaten access to voting. Prominent voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams has referred to such voting laws as “Jim Crow 2.0” as Black Americans have historically faced the brunt of voter suppression.
A Brief History of Voter Suppression
Voter suppression in the United States has long been documented as a means of preventing certain populations from voting, but in particular has targeted Black and other racialized communities. Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which was supposed to allow African American men to vote, they have had their voting rights continuously undermined.
For example, most states continue to have restrictions on the ability for convicted felons to vote, which due to the racist history of policing and mass incarceration, disproportionately impacts Black people. Further, until 1964, some states instituted poll taxes, which prevented many poor and Black populations in the South from voting. One of the most explicit forms of racialized voter suppression was literacy tests, with the goal to ensure only educated people voted. Many African American men were descendants of slaves who were prevented from learning how to read or write. Meanwhile, white men who would have otherwise failed the literacy test were still allowed to vote if their grandfathers had voted by 1867, under the “Grandfather Clause.”
While the 19th Amendment in 1912 is known for guaranteeing women the right to vote, Black women were still denied this right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act also finally outlawed literacy tests at polling stations.
History Carries On
Today there remain many legal loopholes used to suppress voters. For instance, states redraw their legislative boundaries every decade, which is supposed to ensure people are properly represented geographically. However, these legislative maps have been weaponized by both Democratic and Republican state representatives in attempts to strategically arrange the electorate in their favours. This practice is known as gerrymandering, and it often targets Black and other racialized communities. In particular, Republican lawmakers tend to designate boundary lines that split up geographic areas with large Black populations, in order to obstruct their collective voting power which heavily elects Democrats.
In 2013, many voting protections were stripped from the Voting Rights Act. Currently, states are able to organize elections without oversight from the federal government. As a result, more than 1600 polling places have shut down, and voter purging, when names are crossed off voter rolls to prevent people from voting twice, have been subject to many data errors. In fact, the Black voter turnout in 2016 dropped 7%, likely in part due to these practices.
The new voting legislation in Georgia will exacerbate a pre-existing problem in the U.S. Already, polling stations in neighbourhoods with large Black populations see higher instances of broken voting equipment, and much longer lines. Additionally, many critics are concerned that more stringent measures on mail-in ballots will further disenfranchise Black voters, who already tend to face higher rates of ballot rejection due to poor mail service in low-income areas, as well as less support from poll workers when asking for help.
The Election Fraud Narrative
Georgia recorded high voter turnouts in the 2020 Presidential and Senate run-off races, nominating Democratic candidates in a state that has historically favoured Republicans. As a result, Republican state representatives demanded audits to investigate fraud within the Georgia election process, yet two recounts have maintained the initial results.
The voter suppression strategies emerging across the country are an attempt to limit Democratic voter turn-out. For example, new voting restrictions in Arizona are facing a lawsuit filed by the Democratic state representatives who believe that the voting provisions discriminate against people of colour. The attorney for the Arizona Republican Party stated in court that the measures were put in place to discourage Democratic voters, a significant portion of which are Black and Latinx peoples. It seems that Georgia’s new legislation is a tactic to curb voting, specifically disenfranchising voters of colour, in order to increase the chances that the state elects a Republican senator during the 2022 midterm elections.
While Trump’s repetitive claims of widespread voter fraud have no basis in fact, this narrative is resulting in an increase in voter suppression laws under the guise of promoting election security. In particular, these laws are having disproportionate impacts on the ability for people of colour to vote. During his campaign, Trump specifically blamed cities with large Black populations, like Detroit and Atlanta, for carrying out voter fraud. While his election fraud rhetoric has seeped into the broad Republican base, a study has shown that white nationalist sympathizers are much more likely to believe that the election was fraudulent. Thus, Trump’s fraud narrative is rooted in racism that justifies suppressing voters of colour.
Yet, even Republican state representatives who do not necessarily agree with Trump’s claims are using this narrative as an opportunity to justify curbing voters. This also begs the question of whether Republican policies are becoming unpopular within theirusual electorate, especially to the extent of suppressing voters rather than revamping their platform to resonate with more Americans.
The United States identifies itself as the bastion of freedom and democracy. On the other hand, voter suppression has existed for centuries and politicians continue to ostracize some of the most marginalized groups from voting, essentially undermining the democratic process.
Scholars have noted that this rise of voter suppression is not necessarily surprising, as there is a documented trend of restrictive voter laws following periods of large civil rights movements, such as the protests for racial justice following the death of George Floyd. While voting matters, protests have proven to be an equally important method of demanding change, especially for African Americans who have rightly felt disempowered by the voting process.
However, there have been recent initiatives that have expanded the ability for people to vote. For example, in 2013 Colorado shifted to an entirely mail-based voting system, resulting in an increased turnout from Black voters. Further, due to grassroots activism, some states are looking to adopt automatic voter registration systems that make it easier to vote. On the federal level, the bill H.R.1, also known as the For the People Act, recently passed in the House and aims to restore the right to vote for convicted felons, as well as create a nation-wide automatic voter registration system. It should be noted that every single Republican senator voted against this bill that would ultimately increase voter turn-out across the country.
As the grassroots initiatives for voting justice indicate, voting does not have to be an obstacle for people of colour if done correctly. Yet, the legacy of Trump’s election fraud rhetoric remains, undermining not only the civil rights movement that fought for Black people’s right to vote, but the entire democracy of the United States.