Is #VoteByMail the Answer to Voter Suppression?
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. It outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting. The law had an immediate impact. By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one-third by Federal examiners. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975, and 1982.
Twenty years ago, Tennessee rank number 10 in ease of voting. However, since the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, when the Supreme Court defanged federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, the Court has taken an axe to the stump of voter protections that remained. This article will examine voter suppression and an effective way to fight it.
Tennesseans voted in record numbers in 2018, drawn to the polls by a U.S. Senate race that saw Republican Marsha Blackburn defeat Democrat Phil Bredesen. Here in Memphis, long lines, glitchy voting machines, voter registration purges and other difficulties tarnished the electoral process. These seemingly small and isolated challenges can add up and leave voters feeling disenfranchised. The legacy of racism in Memphis, from the city's role in the domestic slave trade to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., scars many people of color here.
In the past decade, voter-registration purges and new voter ID laws have disproportionately affected minority and low-income voters. Because of these policies, Tennessee is the third-most-difficult state in which to cast a ballot, according to a recent study published in the Election Law Journal. Under state law, Tennessee counties must purge people from the registration rolls if they fail to vote in two subsequent November elections and do not respond to a mailer asking to confirm their address (this, despite the evidence that only [ %] of voters who receive these notices, many of whom have not moved, return a responses). Recently, Shelby County removed 24,532 voters from its registration database, determining they had either moved or didn’t wish to vote anymore
These tactics make an indelible historical mark on the election process in Tennessee. In that, it’s the vanguard of a new norm rather than an outlier. In June 2018, the Court blessed these state law sanctioned voter purges, even those that all existing data indicate affect minority communities most. This effectively removes voters from the polls who have not voted over a 6 year period.
So far, the results of these Republican promoted practices have been undeniable. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, up to 2 million more people than expected have lost their voting status because of purges after Shelby County. In addition, 23 states have made their voting laws more restrictive since 2010, including six of the 10 states with the highest proportions of black voters.
Proactive national measures to prevent disenfranchisement have all but been eliminated in the past five years. Litigation—the only remaining remedy—requires constant vigilance by citizens and often takes place only after harms have already occurred and illegitimate elections have already been won. Even if the favored candidates of voters of color win future elections, the effort needed to reestablish a guarantee of voting rights and put the disenfranchisement genie back in the bottle will be massive.
It seems likely, then, that 2018 is a beginning rather than an ending. The Voting Rights Act revolutionized the status quo, forcing a political system historically built almost entirely on exclusion toward openness and greater protections for democracy. But that job was never truly completed, and the well worn tendency of those committed to conserving power in the hands of a shrinking demographic has always been to resurrect the poll tax, or to reinvent it for a new age.
“The election system is getting hit by a wrecking ball because there are constantly more and more inventive tactics being used to suppress the vote,” states Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. Oregon has for 20 years allowed residents to vote by mail, a move that has led to some of the highest election turnouts in the nation as the elderly, disabled and working class are able to cast their ballots with little to no hassle. In 2017, Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the federal Vote By Mail Act, which would require every state to provide residents with a similar option.
“Experts know that one of the biggest ways to increase voter turnout is #VoteByMail,” Wyden tweeted a week after the 2018 elections as states like Georgia and Florida struggled to tabulate votes. “Oregon and Colorado have led the way on making voting easier and more accessible. It’s time for Congress to follow suit and pass my bill to expand Oregon-style #VoteByMail to every state.”
The ability to vote by mail would also enable states to mitigate the impact of increasingly unreliable voting machines, which have a disproportionate effect on minority communities. Hopefully, our new Congress will remedy voter suppression by making #VoteByMail a national law soon.
Written by Judith Johnson