During the US midterm elections held in November 2018, great numbers of eligible voters, particularly from historically marginalised groups, were prevented from voting due to a number of barriers that were deliberately erected to deny them a voice in politics. CIVICUS speaks about voter suppression and its implications for democracy with Karena Cronin, Vote Everywhere Programme Director, and Ryan Spain, David Rudenstine Postgraduate Public Service Legal Fellow, both at The Andrew Goodman Foundation, a civil society organisation that supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility and social justice initiatives on campuses across the USA.
What is voter suppression, and how is it affecting the practice of democracy in the USA?
Voter suppression is hardly a new phenomenon in American politics. What is new, however, is the recent resurgence of these efforts to discourage or prevent certain groups from exercising their right to vote. In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, 19 states passed 25 laws making it harder to vote. This legislation marked a dramatic shift away from the widely held belief that political disenfranchisement is un-American and significantly eroded gains made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Then in 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County vs. Holder case opened the floodgates for voter suppression even wider. The decision, by five to four votes, removed the requirement that certain jurisdictions with a history of racialised voter suppression must obtain clearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws. Since this ruling, there has been a slew of restrictive voting laws coming out of state legislatures all over the country.
These laws have consistently, negatively and disproportionately affected three main groups of people: young people, racial minorities and people who come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. Individuals who fall into all three of these categories feel the effects most acutely. Whether it be by placing onerous voter ID requirements, complicating absentee ballot policies, enacting burdensome proof of residency requirements, or even shutting down entire voting sites, there has been a clear, consistent effort on behalf of partisan state legislatures to accomplish one task: depress the vote of citizens who do not belong to the same party as them.
These actions range from the easier-to-see aforementioned voting requirements, to the more systemic exercises of power such a gerrymandering - whereby state officials draw legislative district lines to either pack as many opposing party voters into one district, thus making all surrounding districts easy wins, or break up and separate dense areas of voters into multiple districts, thus diluting their vote and making the ensuing neighbouring districts uncompetitive.
The 2016 elections also laid bare the vulnerability of American elections to voter suppression from external actors. Various reports have documented how Russian campaigns took advantage of racial faultlines in the USA and employed racialised tactics aimed at discouraging the black vote.
Regardless of which form these policies or tactics take, the result is the same: the voices and votes of certain groups - specifically, young people, racial minorities and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds - are not fully counted in American democracy, leaving the goal of political equity unrealised.
How is civil society pushing back against these restrictions?
Although these facts taken together paint a grim picture for the prospects of having a well-functioning democracy, civil society is mobilising in powerful and innovative ways to reclaim voting rights and have a more representative government. This movement is being led by both veteran civil rights organisations as well as dynamic, new organisations founded within the last few years in response to heightened voter suppression. While the exact focus and methodology of these organisations range from litigation to youth peer-to-peer activation to policy advocacy, all of these actors, including The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF), are committed to ushering in a more inclusive democracy: one where Americans are empowered and enabled to vote. And there are promising signs that these efforts, and those of concerned and engaged citizens across the country, are paying off.
During last year’s midterm election, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative that restored voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions. Desmond Meade, a formerly homeless returning citizen and architect of the successful movement, advocated for felon rights restoration back in 2010, when few organisations, including progressive ones, thought this change was possible. In January 2019, the State of New York passed historic voting reforms including early voting, primary consolidation and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year olds, which propelled New York’s antiquated voting system into the 21st century. These gains come after years of advocacy by a multitude of civic society actors, and more recent leadership by the Let NY Vote Coalition, a non-partisan, state-wide coalition of groups and citizens fighting to make voting more accessible and equitable for every eligible New Yorker.
The AGF was proud to support these efforts, as well as many other initiatives across the nation through Vote Everywhere (VE), the Foundation’s flagship, non-partisan civic leadership development programme, active on 59 college and university campuses in 24 states and Washington, DC. The AGF was founded in 1966 to honour the legacies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi for registering African-Americans to vote during Freedom Summer in 1964.
The AGF’s greatest asset is its network of VE student Ambassadors who take action in their communities to ensure that the voices and votes of young people are a powerful force in democracy. Throughout the academic year, VE student Ambassadors remove youth voting impediments and expand political participation among their peers through long-term voter engagement, civic education, organising and voting rights advocacy. The VE student Ambassadors have successfully championed legislation in Louisiana that requires public universities to ensure that student IDs are also valid voter IDs, helped out-of-state students in Ohio overcome burdensome residency requirements, removed modern-day poll taxes in Alabama, expanded access to voter registration on countless campuses and brought the ballot box closer to students through on-campus polling sites.
Just last year, the AGF was a co-plaintiff along with the League of Women Voters of Florida in a lawsuit that proscribed the Florida Secretary of State from prohibiting college campuses and universities from being used as early voting sites. The lawsuit was inspired by a former VE Ambassador, Megan Newsome at the University of Florida, who in 2017 published an op-ed demanding equal access to early voting sites for students. The legal victory came in 2018 in the United States District Court in the Northern District of Florida and, thanks to the efforts of many civil rights and student voter engagement groups, it led to the placement of 12 early voting polling sites on college and university campuses across Florida, facilitating access to the ballot box for 60,000 Floridians.
While there is much more work still to be done to ensure that no one’s vote is suppressed, it is clear that there is a renewed commitment throughout civil society at the local, state and national levels to counter voter suppression and empower every eligible American to vote.
Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.