Voter Suppression

People waited in long lines to vote in one of only 5 polling stations in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The city usually has 180 voting sites, but lacked volunteer poll workers.

I thought federal law protected voting rights now. Apparently not, because here are some of the ways I’ve read that states can legally suppress voting:

  • Require photo ID.
  • Purge voter rolls without notice, for arbitrary reasons (purge all the people who haven’t voted for the past few years, etc.)
  • Limit the number of polling stations, especially in minority neighborhoods, like was done in Milwaukee in the recent election (5 sites in the city!) due to lack of workers during the pandemic.
  • Limit vote by mail options. (1) Allow only a specific reason to qualify you for a ballot, like a medical condition keeping you housebound, etc. (2) In Wisconsin, you have to get a WITNESS to sign your absentee ballot (without seeing who you vote for, is suggested!), and include the ADDRESS OF THE WITNESS. Recent news reports are that more than 10,000 absentee ballots weren’t counted in the last Wisconsin election (since the pandemic) because they did not include the witness’s address. (3) Restrict the dates/timing for returning ballots. In Washington State, a mail-in ballot must be POSTMARKED BY ELECTION DAY and it is counted whenever it arrives. In Wisconsin, a mail-in ballot must be RECEIVED BY ELECTION DAY at the election offices–so the voter is held responsible for any USPS delay.

It’s harder to vote by absentee ballot in Wisconsin that it was in Washington.

When I lived in Washington State, we could only vote by mail since the mid-2000s. Local, state, and federal election results were determined without undue delays. If my ballot was POSTMARKED by election day, my vote counted. I missed the Election Day opportunity to go to my neighborhood polling station, find out how busy they’d been, see a few friends, and cast my ballot. But voting by mail was convenient, safe, and easy.

In Wisconsin this year, I requested an absentee ballot for the first time. It wasn’t easy. In order to be mailed an absentee ballot, I had to submit a digital copy (or photo copy) of my photo ID, my driver’s license. Fortunately, I knew how to do that on my cell phone and my application was accepted. Otherwise I would have needed to get a photo copy made and mail in my application. With this request, I also was able to request an absentee ballot for all the remaining elections in Wisconsin for the rest of 2020 (August primary, November general elections). I’d ordered it 3 weeks before the election, and received and mailed it back to allow 10 days for it to arrive and be counted. I can only trust that it was.

Why are voting rights even an issue now? I thought the 1965 law was still in effect and protecting everybody.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was a major victory for the Civil Rights movement led then by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, among many other Black leaders and organizations. President Lyndon Johnson finally supported it, proclaiming that the US Constitution was intended to protect all citizens’ right to vote. Because many Southern states did not protect voting rights, this landmark federal law had a Section 5, requiring that any change in state election laws (to reintroduce restrictions, for example) must be “precleared” by the federal government.

Then what went wrong?

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell recently called reports of voter suppression “nonsense.” The reason increasing voter suppression is not nonsense is because the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Without federal oversight, individual states could–and have–resumed voter suppression and discrimination. In many states, the top election official is someone elected by partisan votes. Challenges to these election law changes now have to be done state by state, a massive legal and moral fight.

Rep. John Lewis championed a remedy before his death:

On July 22, 2020, the US House (47 Democrats, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican) reintroduced the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act”, a renamed version of the bill they passed in 2019 but that the Senate has ignored.

So what do we do now? Wait for the November 2020 election to reshape the US Senate and Presidency, and get the new law passed?

Yes, vote. Tell our Senators to pass the new voting rights act. Support the organizations that are educating voters, encouraging voter turnout, and challenging states’ restrictive voting laws in court.

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