Lines of increasingly restless people, who had been waiting for hours, wound around blocks and spilled into streets on a late night. A scene like this might suggest crowds queueing to attend, perhaps, an exclusive performance or speaker event. Instead, this exact scenario occurred all over the United States on Election Night as busy citizens carved time out of their workdays to attempt to exercise their right to vote (ideally, one of the least exclusive things ever) and faced endless bureaucratic and logistical nightmares. Missing voting machines, understaffing and delayed openings (or unexpected closings) plagued polling places all over America. “Dysfunctional democracy” has been given a new, more expansive definition, one that not only encompasses the outrageous actions of American politicians but their constituents’ inability to vote them out, and the broken voting machine is emblematic of it.
America has an extensive, troubling history of voter suppression. This dates back to its founding, when voting was reserved for wealthy white men. It features the three-fifths clause, which quantified the dehumanization of slaves and used them as puppets so that their owners could have more political representation. It includes poll taxes literacy tests and systematic disenfranchisement that continued to plague the nation even after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. It extends to the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, which ruled part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional and did away with federal oversight of state voting laws and regulations, particularly in states with a history of voting discrimination. And it culminated into not just late Tuesday night, but in the days leading up to it. Some states allow same-day voter registration, early voting, mail-in ballots or no-excuse absentee ballots, and some don’t. Hours and locations of polling places vary, as do transportation options and ease of access. Many workplaces don’t relax employees’ schedules on election days. Figuring out how to vote is so confusing that it discouraged many Americans from trying.
Working-class people are far from the only or main demographic that is hurt by exhaustive voting regulations. Tactics aimed at restricting people’s ability to vote are often explicitly aimed at people of color. Prior to the midterms, Georgia secretary of state and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp implemented a nitpicky process that put over 53,000 voter registrations on hold. About 70 percent of those would-be voters were black, over twice the percentage of the entire state’s black population. It is no accident that these occurrences are so widespread in Georgia and other Southern states. New voter identification laws also disproportionately harm minorities; for example, Native Americans who live on reservations without PO boxes may not be able to meet requirements for identification with residential addresses. Laws that preclude felons from voting also disenfranchise the formerly or currently incarcerated population, which primarily consists of low-income people of color.
These changes usually occur without anyone knowing about them, which only amplifies the issues — misinformation is abound on Election Day, and voters can be easily discouraged by intimidation tactics designed to drive them away from the polls.
Voter suppression directly undermines democracy; that much is obvious. But it also makes it increasingly difficult to gauge the political climate. Unusually high voter turnout in Georgia combined with poorly-managed polling places has led to a necessary recount of the gubernatorial race, and in Florida all three high profile races of the midterm elections are being recounted for similar reasons. Conservative pundits are racing to criticize the way that Democrats’ have operated this campaign season, no doubt seeking to perpetuate the myth that economic populism, instead of racism, elected President DonaldTrump. Some are even doing so under the guise of wanting to see the Democrats defeat Trump.
But exaggerating the appeal of Trump and Republican candidates isn’t helpful, especially when a wave of more diverse politicians (particularly to the House) has just been elected. Shortly after Trump was elected, people were quick to blame identity politics, but judging from the midterm results and new firsts achieved in American politics, it looks like that wasn’t the issue at all. Moreover, conservatives routinely blame Democrats for overlooking the white working class and pretend that they are the only voter demographic that matters in America. That would only be true because they typically don’t face the barriers to voting that minorities do. If people of color found it as easy to vote as Republicans’ constituents do, then the midterm results could have been confirmation that identity politics, in fact, win elections, and that progressive policies are popular with huge chunks of America. But since those chunks of America had a harder time voting, any conclusion drawn about the will of the American people would be invalid because it would be based on insufficient data.
This past election season saw a huge focus on amping up voter turnout, and while that’s certainly significant, making sure that everyone who wants to vote can is equally important. Repairing the American voting system must be a top priority for 2020. Fortunately, there are simple but effective strategies that can resolve its issues. Legislation that requires federal oversight of states’ voting laws or uniformizes and simplifies voting requirements throughout the nation would be the best way to combat voter suppression. But as the Republican Senate majority means any such legislation is unlikely to pass anytime soon, maintaining upkeep of polling places and pouring money into doing so is an important step to take at the local level. This solution will also help voters in areas like New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix, which were also bogged down by issues at the voting booths but would be overlooked by legislation that focuses on states with histories of voter discrimination. And of course, making sure that citizens are informed about their voting rights is absolutely essential and would reduce the chances that they will be scared away by voter intimidation tactics.
Trump loves to complain about illegal voter fraud and spread lies that undocumented immigrants are voting at polls. If the real issues of voter fraud were resolved in this country, it’s likely he wouldn’t even be in office.