Voter suppression is as American as apple pie, football, or Thanksgiving. Since the creation of the Constitution, people in government and positions of power have sought to restrict the number of people who can vote. The Constitution gave no specific standards to who could vote, beyond that they had to be white men over 21. The remaining restrictions were left to the power of the states, which would have long-lasting implications. In the years directly following 1789, there existed property and religious restrictions in many states, restricting the American voting base further to solely white, protestant, land-owning men. From this base, voting rights would slowly, but surely, be expanded to the rights as we know them.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment was passed and black men were given the right to vote. By this point, all other restrictions had been lifted for white men. While the amendment made it illegal to explicitly discriminate on the basis of race, other tactics were utilized to prevent the newly enfranchised population from voting. These were broadly categorized as Jim Crow Laws. These laws included literacy tests and poll taxes, and actions that defined this era included segregation, race-based violence, and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. All of these measures were aimed at preventing black men and women from utilizing their right to vote to make a significant change in their conditions. These legal and extralegal efforts began to be alleviated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As has been evidenced in the decades since then, these laws were a treatment for the problem, not the cure. Voter suppression has still run rampant, especially after the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v Holder, which metaphorically stripped the Voting Rights Act of its teeth. The case ruled that states with histories of voter suppression that previously had to receive “preclearance” from the federal government to pass any new voting laws no longer had to do so. This means that those states could only be held accountable if citizens or the Justice Department filed suit. As the late Justice Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” This lack of accountability from the federal government coupled with the unceasing historical tendency toward voter suppression has led to the conditions as we see them today–a once-in-a-lifetime storm with nothing to shelter us from the devastation.
Voter suppression attempts are actively underway for the 2020 election. This election is unprecedented because it is taking place in the middle of a global pandemic, which is seeing its highest reported cases ever less than two weeks before the election. This has led to an increased emphasis on mail-in ballots, which has created its own unique set of opponents. The primary adversary of mail-in voting: the President and the GOP. President Trump, after repeated attempts to harm the Postal Service, has claimed that mail-in ballots will rig the election. Trump, who has voted by mail as recently as this past August, is wielding a double edged sword; on one edge he is trying to prevent people from voting and the other he is trying to delegitimize the election, should his voter suppression methods fail and he loses. His claims have been proven repeatedly to be untrue, but he continues to purport a massive conspiracy of fraud, leading to fact-checking after the debates and warning labels from Twitter. The only major news story related to tampering of votes by mail has been in California, where the President’s own party has been ordered by state officials to cease-and-desist their installation of illegal unofficial ballot drop boxes. The realities of mail-in voting are clear: fraud exists on a minuscule insignificant level and mail-in ballots have a long reliable history for those who have served in our military or lived in states who have used this method for decades.
This has not stopped the relentless attacks by President Trump and his GOP allies on voting rights, a battle that is now being fought out in the courts. In two states this battle has been particularly evident: Texas and Pennsylvania. Texas Governor Abbot (R) issued an order on October 1 that limited ballot drop boxes to one per county, claiming it was an attempt to limit voter fraud. This would mean Texas’ largest county, with a reliably Democratic voting population, Harris County with 4.7 million inhabitants would have the same amount of ballot drop boxes as Texas’ smallest county, Loving County with just 169 inhabitants. The Anti-Defamation League, the watchdog group Common Cause, and two Texas voters took Abbot to court to claim he overstepped his authority to limit voters. The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals struck down Abbot’s order, but the Supreme Court of Texas has temporarily reinstated it while they deliberate the case. In Pennsylvania, their Republican Party is asking the Supreme Court to strike down part of the new COVID-19 laws regarding mail-in ballots, specifically that ballots received between November 4 and 6, but postmarked on or before Election Day or unclearly postmarked, be counted towards the election. They had left in place the ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholding the law, but the court fight is still ensuing, with the Pennsylvania GOP asking for the case to be adjudicated prior to the election. Fears among Democrats are mounting after the Supreme Court decision striking down a Wisconsin law allowing ballots to count if they are received before November 9, as long as they are postmarked by November 3. Justice Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion has raised alarms as he argued ballots should only count if they are received by Election Day, cautioning that ballots coming in after Election Day and altering the results as they stood on Election Day could cause chaos and questions about the legitimacy of the election. Justice Kagan exposed the illogic of this opinion, “But there are no results to ‘flip’ until all valid votes are counted. And nothing could be more ‘suspicio[us]’ or ‘improp[er]’ than refusing to tally votes once the clock strikes 12 on election night. To suggest otherwise, especially in these fractious times, is to disserve the electoral process.”
With all the doubts about the reliability of mail-in voting, and in attempts to avoid election day lines, people have taken to voting early and in person. The results of this voter suppression campaign have been the opposite of what Trump and the GOP have intended. People are coming out to vote early in numbers previously unseen. Long lines, which have been yet another voter suppression tactic in the past, seem to be unable to stop the indefatigable wave of enthusiasm people have to vote in this election. Massive lines have been documented across the United States. In New York City, people waited in line for more than 5 hours, and at times there were more than 700 people waiting in line at a single Brooklyn polling station. This phenomenon is not limited to the city; in my home county of Orange County, New York, people waited for 3 hours to vote. I personally waited an hour. The message is palpable across the country: what is a couple more hours wait when we have been waiting for 4 years?
The voter suppression efforts of the GOP are nothing in comparison to the will of the American people. In Brooklyn and Philadelphia, people are dancing the wait away. The people want their voices to be heard. Harris County, Texas, with their aforementioned single ballot dropbox, is fighting back against their Governor’s suppression. On their first day of early voting, more than 128,000 people voted, almost doubling the 68,000 votes in 2016. By October 23, more than a million votes had been cast, almost matching the 1.3 total votes cast by the county in 2016, with more than a week of early voting remaining. This is not an isolated incident. More early votes had been cast nationwide by October 23 than in 2016, with more than double the amount of Democrats voting early up to that point than Republicans. In battleground states, young voters are voting early in much greater numbers than 2016, nearly 6 times greater in Florida, 8 times greater in North Carolina, and 20 times greater in Michigan.
The trend is clear–the historical voter suppression that politicians have relied upon for centuries will not stand this year. Despite all of the obstacles presented, Americans are voting and doing so in numbers much greater than in 2016. The American people are realizing their power and will express there will come Election Day.