By Johanna Gusman, Political Action Chair, NAACP Loudoun
If you haven’t had the chance to watch “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” Stacy Abram’s new documentary on Hulu, I highly recommend using any extra time in your day while social distancing at home to watch it. It’s a sobering, yet inspiring film that reminds us how intertwined race and voter suppression is. When we talk voting rights in America, we must examine our nation’s history—with its legacy of slavery and oppression—to understand that from the moment that slave ships hit our Virginian shores in 1619 to the events on Edmund Pettis Bridge Selma in Selma in 1965 and to this very moment (because you can vote now, not just in November), the fight for voting rights is ongoing.
Even though African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities were guaranteed the right to vote by the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, states and local municipalities continued to use voter suppression tactics like poll taxes, literacy tests and Black codes to stop people, mostly minorities, from casting their ballots. And if the law didn’t stop you, bullets, ropes and burning crosses would. For so many, to exercise their right to vote meant to be met with intimidation, violence and even death. That is the backdrop of voting rights in America. That is where we must always start the conversation and that is what informs the work of the NAACP.
In this upcoming election, we are already seeing a barrage of voter suppression, not too unlike the techniques used prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a bedrock of civil rights law. Florida’s fight to reinstate voting rights for those previously incarcerated for felony convictions amounts to a modern-day poll tax, where they are required to pay restitution in full before they are allowed to cast a ballot. Many fines exceed what any person could pay many lifetimes over, thus preventing them from ever being truly able to vote. In Kentucky and Georgia, large swaths of those states had only a single polling location, so that wait times were upwards of eight hours before those communities—majority Black and Brown—could exercise their right to vote.
Voter suppression, and of course, the difficulty that voting during a global pandemic brings, require specific advocacy needs, especially regarding the expansion of vote by mail. The NAACP and many other civil rights groups advocate that officials must maintain, and in some cases even expand, in-person voting options. Eliminating or reducing in-person options can inadvertently disenfranchise many Black voters, voters with disabilities, and indigenous voters. Here’s how:
- Communities of color and the housing-insecure are disproportionately disadvantaged by mail-in voting.For example, Black Americans are more likely to have changed their address and have traditionally rely on in-person voting. For voters who frequently move or lack permanent addresses, in-person voting options may be the only way that they can vote. Furthermore, eliminating in-person options, including early and Sunday voting, will likely have negative effects on voter turnout among Black Americans given their historic reliance on such policies dating back to the civil rights era. During the 2018 midterm election,more than one-fifth of Black votersrelied on in-person early voting.
- Voters with disabilities often require in-person accommodations.For1 in 6 voting-age persons living with a disability, voting by mail may not be easy or accessible. This is particularly true for individuals who are blind as well as those with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities who may require in-person accommodations to vote privately. For in-person voting, all polling places must ensure compliance with theAmericans with Disabilities Act(ADA), which may not be preserved in any vote-by-mail system.
- People living on tribal lands may not have access to reliable postal service to even receive ballots.More than 1 in 5 American Indian and Alaskan Native voterslive on reservations or other land trusts. Many living on tribal lands do not haveofficial street addressesand rely on P.O. boxes, which are sometimes shared. Residents in these remote areas often travel extremely long distances to reach their postal office or the official polling station at the county seat. This can make voting inaccessible for those without some form of transportation and long journeys make it extra difficult to obtain and return ballots by the required deadlines. To prevent disenfranchisement, these populations must be authorized to designate in-person ballot distribution and collection sites on tribal lands.
For voter rights advocates, these problems have long existed, but in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, they are receiving much needed attention. But the thing is, with or without the coronavirus, increased access to the ballot box is always needed. The need for expanded opportunities for on-line registration and same-day voter registration existed well before we know about this virus. In Virginia, our bill for no-excuse absentee voting that finally passed this year (!) was originally filed in 2019 and differing version many years prior. The need for robust voter education initiatives has never waned. And big-ticket issues like re-instating voting rights and modernizing and safeguarding our elections process existed well before 2020 even began.
Yes, this upcoming election may be marred by intense voter suppression, driven by systemic oppression and partisan electoral politics. Yes, you may be told your voice doesn’t matter, your vote won’t make a difference, and this election will be stolen. But do not believe a word of it. People lose their power when they think that they don’t have any. We are told these messages precisely because of the power we do hold. Democracy is saved by our participation. By our loud and unstoppable right to vote. Use it. Vote early. Vote often.
One of the best pieces of advice that I read on what people can do today to protect the right to vote is simple:there is someone in your life that only you can reach in this election. It is your job to get to them. In Loudoun County, the NAACP has made that job even easier. We are hosting three March to the Poll events to encourage people vote early, in-person on Oct. 17, 24 and 31 from noon to 2 p.m. that you can join to help get out the vote. Visit www.NAACPloudoun.org to find out more. In the meantime, register your friends, neighbors and family to vote.