CIVICUS speaks about voter suppression and its implications for US democracy with Yael Bromberg, Chief Counsel for Voting Rights at The Andrew Goodman Foundation, an organisation that works to make the voices of young people – one of the most underrepresented voter groups in the USA – a powerful force for democracy. The Foundation was set up in 1966 to carry on the spirit and the purpose of Andy Goodman, who in 1964 joined Freedom Summer, a project aimed at registering Black Americans to vote to dismantle segregation and oppression, and who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan on his first day in Mississippi. The Foundation supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility and social justice initiatives in almost a hundred higher learning institutions across the country.
It is confusing for outside observers to see a country that promotes itself as the paragon of democracy put barriers that limit the right to vote of millions of its citizens. Can you tell us more about voter suppression in the USA?
It's true that the USA has promoted itself as a beacon of democracy. As an immigrant and naturalised citizen whose grandparents survived the Holocaust and Soviet gulags, I appreciate some of the unique freedoms that are afforded in this country. For example, while our judicial system is currently under serious threat due to the politicisation and polarisation of the bench, it has generally withstood the type of corruption that is embedded in other countries. While our legal system is fraught and certain norms like extremist police impunity need to be tackled, our congressional system is able, if willing, to fill the gaps left by the judiciary. While big money, including dark money, has radically swamped our politics, serious advocates who have withstood far worse teach us that democracy is a long persistent journey and not a destination. Yes, we have systemic issues in this country that need serious repair, and real lives suffer due to the dysfunction of the tyranny of a minority. But we also have the founding American principles of freedom, liberty, and equality, and the possibility of fulfilling our ideal.
At this nation’s founding, only property-owning white men had the right to vote. Through the constitutional ratification process, slavery was abolished and freed men were enfranchised. Unjust laws persisted, such as literacy tests and poll taxes for racial minorities to prevent them from voting. This was coupled with other Jim Crow laws that created arbitrary reasons to imprison freed slaves and force them back into labour camps, and to disenfranchise them upon release. Popular resistance grew as the physical and political violence of Jim Crow segregation was laid bare in the 1960s, leading to stronger laws and new constitutional amendments.
Voter suppression today is the equivalent of the fox guarding the henhouse. Those who are privileged enough to define the laws determine who is in and who is out. For example, strict voter identification laws that go above and beyond standard proof of identification swept the nation after the election of President Obama. Alabama enacted strict voter identification, and then shut down driver licence offices where one could obtain such IDs throughout large rural sections of the state where Black people reside. Politicians draw district lines in efforts to secure their own party’s future, and their personal future bids for office. Polling places are not readily available on college campuses where young people are concentrated. Even during a global pandemic, vote-by-mail is not a universal right for all. While one state, New Jersey, offers at least 10 droboxes per town to collect vote-by-mail ballots, another, Texas, litigated the matter successfully to limit droboxes to only one per county. To make matters worse, when these laws are litigated, the courts do not always rule on behalf of the voters.
This 2020 election season has been particularly startling. The federal judiciary seems obsessed with the idea that last-minute changes to election rules lead to voter suppression, even where the law expands access to the ballot. This defies logic. If the law limits access, that is one thing. However, if the law simply expands access, the harm to voters is unclear.
The natural question that emerges from our paradigm is: if America truly is a beacon for democracy, then why are we so afraid to embrace the first three words in our Constitution – “We the People”?
Was voter suppression a crucial issue in the context of the 2020 presidential election?
Absolutely. The 2020 presidential election reveals at least five significant takeaways: 1) Our state governments are readily able to safely expand access to the ballot, including by extending early voting periods and vote by mail opportunities; 2) Voters across partisan lines take advantage of these mechanisms, and benefit from them, as demonstrated by the record-breaking voter turnout this year; 3) Expansion and election modernisation do not lead to voter fraud; 4) Voters were motivated to vote this year despite the discriminatory and arbitrary obstacles that were put in their way; 5) The myth of voter fraud, rather than actual systemic evidence of it, has emerged as a significant threat both to protecting access to the ballot and public confidence in our election systems.
In 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated a key sunshine provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That safeguard mandated that states with a demonstrated history of voter suppression must get approval before changing their election laws. With the safeguard eliminated, the floodgates to voter suppression were open. The number of polling places shrank: 1,700 polling places were shut down between 2012 and 2018, including over 1,100 between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections. Strict voter identification laws were passed, making it harder for poor people, people of colour and young people to vote. Other measures like the purging of state voter rolls and the rezoning of election districts further diluted voting power. It’s important to note that all of this happens on the back of the taxpayers – they foot the bill for the backlogged judiciary and the prevailing party’s litigation fees, and on the back of voters – they are forced to accept the results of a rigged election system even though the voter suppression law might be overturned in the future.
The thin, fake trumpet of voter fraud has caused a clamping down on rights across the board. There was no reason why, especially amid a pandemic, access to vote-by-mail should not be universal. Yet, eight states only allowed voters over a certain age to vote by mail, but not younger voters. The pandemic does not discriminate, and neither should our electoral system. Similarly, the United States Postal Service was suddenly politicised as it became increasingly obvious that voters would be voting by mail at unprecedented rates. Discussions were renewed about its privatisation, and expensive mail sorting machines were ordered to be dismantled for no reason other than to suppress the vote. In the wake of the election, the Trump campaign has done much harm to delegitimise the results, even though not one shred of evidence of voter fraud was revealed in the over 50 lawsuits challenging the outcome of the election. This has been an extraordinary disservice to the country, as it has convinced a substantial base within one political party to question the outcome of an election that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has declared “the most secure in American history.”
As all of this has taken place, the pandemic has also driven an expansion of access in key respects. Even some Republican-led states demonstrated leadership in expanding the early voting period and access to vote-by-mail systems. We must use this as a learning opportunity to push for common sense election modernisation, so it is not a pandemic-related, one-off thing. COVID-19 has normalised election modernisation from a fringe progressive issue to a mainstream one that empowers voters across the political spectrum. Moreover, while the Trump campaign’s endless unsubstantiated lawsuits may play to a certain base of voters, one wonders if they will cause the judiciary to be finally convinced that voter fraud is not pervasive. This is important because invariably, we will see voter suppression state laws introduced in the wake of this election, just as we saw following the 2008 Obama election, and they will certainly lead to legal challenges. Perhaps the courts will respond to such challenges differently this time around in light of the audit of the 2020 race.
As much as voter suppression was present this cycle, the response was to overwhelm the system with voter engagement. As expected, election turnout was unprecedentedly high. Initial estimates indicate that youth turnout was even higher this cycle than when the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971 and the base of newly eligible voters suddenly expanded. We simply cannot afford the voter apathy that we have seen in years past. In 2016, there were wins by razor-thin margins in three key states: Michigan, by 0.2 per cent, Pennsylvania, by 0.7 per cent and Wisconsin, by 0.8 per cent. Voter suppression can certainly be called into question with these types of slim margins. However, we cannot forget the power of voting: about 43 per cent of the eligible voter population did not vote in 2016. Current estimates indicate that approximately 34 per cent of the eligible voter population – about one in three voters – did not participate in 2020. How do we maintain this new record-setting voting rate, and even improve upon it, once fascism is no longer on the ballot?
Can you tell us about the work done by The Andrew Goodman Foundation on the intersection of the two major issues of voting rights and systemic racism?
The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s mission is to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy. Our Vote Everywhere programme is a national nonpartisan civic engagement and social justice movement led by young people on campuses across the country. The programme provides extensive training, resources and a peer network, while our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors register young voters, break down voting barriers and tackle important social justice issues. We are on nearly 100 campuses across the nation, and maintain a diverse docket of campuses, including People of Color Serving Institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
What is powerful about youth organising and voting is that it crosses all lines – sex, race, national origin and even partisanship. This was born out of the history of the expansion of the youth vote in 1971, when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, thereby lowering the voting age to 18 and outlawing age discrimination in access to the franchise. It was the quickest amendment to be ratified in US history, in large part due to its nearly unanimous support across partisan lines. There was a recognition that young voters help safeguard the moral compass of the country, as recognised by then-President Richard Nixon during the ceremonial signing of the amendment.
Andrew Goodman’s legacy is directly tied to solidarity struggles among and between communities for the betterment of the whole. Throughout the 1960s, Black college students in the south courageously sat at white-owned lunch counters in political protest for integration and equality. In May 1964, young Americans from across the country migrated south during Freedom Summer to register Black voters and overturn Jim Crow segregation. Three young civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan with the help of the county sheriff’s office: Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, both Jewish men from New York who were only 20 and 24 years old, and James Chaney, a Black man from Mississippi who was only 21 years old. Their stories struck a public chord that helped galvanise support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is a story about the power of young visionaries fighting for their futures, allyship, and about the power of what can be accomplished when Americans from different backgrounds come together in unity.
Young activists led various social justice movements of the 1960s, just as they do today. When this country responded and enacted critical reforms, young people finally turned to their own enfranchisement as they were being sent to their graves early in endless war in Vietnam. Today, young people are leading the call for climate justice, for gun control, for human dignity for our Black and immigrant communities, and for affordable higher education. They have the most to gain and lose in our elections, because it is they who inherit the future. They recognise, particularly in light of the nation’s changing demographics, that the issue of youth voting rights is a racial justice issue. The more that we can look to the youth vote as a unifier – because all voters were young once – the more we can hope to inject some common sense into a contested and polarised system.
Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Andrew Goodman Foundation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AndrewGoodmanF and @YaelBromberg on Twitter.