Millions of Americans are facing voter suppression during this election season, with consequences ranging from disenfranchisement to prison time. New and old tactics to make it harder to vote disproportionately target many groups, including people with felony convictions as well as Black, Latino, Native American and working-class communities.
On top of the pre-existing barriers to voting, the 2022 election cycle has seen a number of new laws and tactics designed to make it more difficult to vote. According to The Guardian, “the proliferation of election crime legislation represents the most intense voter suppression threat in decades and comes in direct response to former president Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent.”
Forty-two state legislatures have considered at least 130 bills collectively that would make law enforcement more involved in the voting process, and 28 have passed. One law in Utah stipulates that election officials must check if voters vote twice and tell police or prosecutors about suspected voter fraud.
Voting restrictions disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities. Strict voter ID laws, long wait times, difficulty voting by mail and polling place closures can make it difficult to vote. A study published in the academic journal Politics, Groups, and Identities found that between 2012 and 2016, “the gap in turnout between more racially diverse and less racially diverse counties grew more” in states that enacted photo ID laws.
Historically, Black and Indigenous voters have faced many of the same obstacles. In Arizona, a proposition would eliminate the possibility of voting without a photo ID. Under current law, a person can provide two forms of identification that do not have photos. This disproportionately affects Indigenous voters, who often use tribal ID cards to vote, which sometimes do not have photos. The proposition would also add stricter requirements for mail-in voting, such as demands for date of birth and voter identification number.
There are only four offices where a person can get an ID in Navajo Nation, which is over 27,000 square miles — greater than the size of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Many people living there do not have access to a vehicle. Older Indigenous voters may not even know their government birthday, or can have conflicting information from different government agencies, creating yet another barrier to receiving identification.
Arizona Democratic Party Deputy Political Director Rachel Hood told The Arizona Republic that the proposition “places an undue burden on voters, especially those who already have a hard time voting. For Native voters, anything that requires address-displaying forms of ID are harder to access because they typically do not live in areas with traditional street addresses.”
Last month in Montana, a state court overturned three laws that would have targeted the ability for Native Americans to vote. The laws would have prevented ballot collectors from being paid, prevented people from registering on the same day that they vote and challenged use of a student ID.
In 1948, Native Americans in Arizona won the right to vote when the state Supreme Court overturned a case where Native Americans had sued for their rights but lost. Other states recognized Native Americans’ voting rights in the years after. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act guaranteed all Americans accessibility to vote and banned discrimination against people who did not speak English. In the 1970s, the U.S. outlawed literacy tests for Native Americans that discouraged non-English speakers.
The working class faces obstacles to voting as well. Many states mandate paid time off to vote, but they may not allow enough time to wait in line. Twenty-one states do not mandate any time off from work to vote, making it difficult to reach the polls. In 2020, the Brennan Center for Justice found that voters of color self-reported longer wait times compared to white voters. Georgia even banned handing out food and water to voters waiting in line. Absentee voting is a possibility, but voters still face many challenges.
People with felony convictions, who are disproportionately Black men, face significant obstacles to voting. According to the decarceration advocacy group the Sentencing Project, approximately 4.6 million people are barred from voting due to prior convictions; this translates to 1 out of every 50 American adults.
In Washington, D.C., Maine and Vermont, incarcerated people and those with a felony conviction are not stripped of the right to vote. In addition, people who have served their sentence do often regain the right to vote. However, many are not made aware of this change, and states frequently require people to pay all their court fees before they are eligible to vote.
Crucially, an error can send someone back to prison. In August, 19 people were arrested in Florida for alleged voter fraud. At least 13 were Black, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Many of the people arrested had received confusing or bad information about their eligibility to vote.
“They’re going to pay the price,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a press conference. The individuals were identified by DeSantis’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security.
Brad Ashwell, the Florida director for the nonprofit group All Voting is Local, told the Marshall Project: “These actions are really about striking fear in a voter’s minds and intimidating them.”
In 2021, Oregon began counting incarcerated people where they are incarcerated instead of where they lived previously, even though people in prison cannot vote. This gave more power to many majority-white districts where prisons are located.
Legislation to allow incarcerated people to vote will be reintroduced in Oregon, according to Zach Winston, director of policy and outreach at the Oregon Justice Resource Center. This would also make it easier for people who are incarcerated while awaiting trial to vote.
“When you start picking and choosing who can and can’t vote, you create all sorts of problems,” Winston told the Center for Public Integrity. “If we can re-enfranchise those in prison, we can build out some structure for corrections as a whole.”
In addition to dealing with law enforcement, voters may encounter illegal vigilante intimidation. On November 1, a federal judge issued a restraining order against Clean Elections USA, a right-wing voter-intimidation group, barring them from “visibly wear[ing] body armor,” carrying weapons openly or yelling at voters. The group had been stationed at ballot drop boxes in Arizona, taking photos of voters. Influenced by former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, the group has also been banned from making inaccurate claims about voting rules in the future.
In some cases, vigilantism has been legalized and encouraged by state governments. In Georgia, conservatives have taken advantage of a 2021 law that allows voters to challenge other people’s voter registrations in the state. According to the voter rights group New Georgia Project, more than 64,000 registrations have been challenged and at least 1,800 people have had their registrations taken away since the law was passed.
“The intensity around election administration has not subsided since 2020,” Jonathan Diaz, senior legal counsel for voting rights at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, told CNN. “It’s not just voters, but state and local election administrators are really feeling the pressure from these organized outside groups who have organized these challenges or … taken it on themselves to monitor drop boxes.”
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