As the elections draw nearer, it is important to discuss the egregiousness of voter suppression tactics. If you are unclear about what that is—or if you need a reminder—voter suppression is the use of strategies to discourage or prevent particular groups from voting. Usually, the groups affected are disproportionately Democratic Black Americans.
After Shelby V. Holder, a 2013 United States Supreme Court case that declared two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, states with a dark past of suppressing Black votes—Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Arizona—were given back the power to alter their voting practices without the federal government’s permission.
Voter suppression tactics are not as visible as they were prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We are no longer required to take impossible literacy tests or pay high poll taxes. However, as modern-day voter suppression efforts increase across America, it becomes clear that we are taking a step backward and this puts our rights in jeopardy, particularly our voting rights.
Whether it’s the number of poll sites being slashed by over 2,000 sites, millions of purged voter rolls, requiring forms of ID that are not accessible to millions of Americans, or race-based gerrymandering, our voting rights are being gutted right before our eyes. However, we can swim against the current and fight to protect our rights.
ESSENCE spoke with Kat Calvin, the founder of Spread the Vote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit nationwide organization that combats legislation and primarily Voter ID laws that prevent people from voting, to discuss voter suppression tactics and what we can do to combat those issues.
ESSENCE: The Associated Press Reported that Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican nominee for governor, put 53,000 voter registration forms on hold due to conflicts with the “exact match” test. Approximately 37,000 of those affected were Black Americans. What can those 53,000 voters with pending registrations do?
Kat Calvin: They can vote legally. The law is very clear and the SOS is confirming it to anyone who asks. In Georgia, if your voter registration status is pending, you can cast a regular ballot just like everyone else. And this is the problem: It’s information! “Everything is okay” does not make a good headline, so the press creates a panic for clicks and views and bad information spreads.
ESSENCE: Would you say that news stories about Kemp are distractions to discourage people from voting?
K.C: Not all of them. There are a lot of really legitimate ways that Kemp is and has suppressed the vote. For example, the place where exact match (the law they’re using to hold 53,000 voter registrations) is really a problem is when it comes to absentee ballots. They’re using the law to reject a lot, and of course disproportionally those of Black voters. Kemp is also behind Georgia’s voter ID laws and is basically notorious for suppressing the vote in as many ways as possible. And we need to bring attention to these things. But when there’s a situation like the 53,000, we need to get accurate information out, ESPECIALLY because there are so many other instances in which votes are really being suppressed. But the press is not good at nuance and panic raises a lot of money.
ESSENCE: Poll sites close arbitrarily. This can cause inconvenience to many voters. Since 2013, more than 2,000 voting sites have been closed. What can voters do in that case?
K.C: So, in that case, they can get involved with or support the local organizations that are fighting those shutdowns. For example, the New Georgia Project regularly fights those shutdowns. I’ve been with them when they’ve canvassed to get people to call the board of election and go to the meetings. Find the local groups working on the issues and support them with money or time. And if you’re in a precinct where they want to shut down your site, you should go to the meetings and bring three friends. And another thing that is really important is for black women to get on those boards of elections. Get involved, become precinct chairs and poll-workers and get involved in the governor’s offices. Boards of elections are really powerful. They’re often (or always) appointed, and it’s important that they become more diverse.
ESSENCE: Faulty voting machines are known to suppress votes. Is there a way for people to make sure that they aren’t using a faulty machine? And what steps can that person take to make sure that the machines at their polling site are fully operational?
K.C: Every district gets to choose their own method of collecting votes with more or less state control depending on that particular state — and with more or less money depending on the state. We can fight for better funding in the state leg. I mean, really — this is one of those things that people don’t have a ton of control over. However, I wouldn’t say that it’s largely out of our hands. I would say that: just like with most issues, it’s the responsibility of the people who represent us, so we have to advocate for the things we care about to them.
ESSENCE: Due to the gutting of many polling sites, people have reported waiting at least 2 hours to cast their vote. What can the elderly, people with disabilities and people with obligations do to make sure they vote?
K.C: Every state has absentee voting; some states require justifications — for example, you’ll be out of town or you’re an elder who cannot stand for long periods. Some states allow anyone to use them. While absentee ballots are not 100% reliable, they are still a good option. Also, for people with disabilities: check out the ADA guidelines, especially around curbside voting. All polling sites have to be accessible and if they aren’t, they have to provide curbside voting. A lot of states also have rules that people over 75-years-old can vote immediately during certain hours — so always check with your board of elections!
ESSENCE: Many people are confused about voter roll purges. Can you elaborate on what that is and what would be a great practice to not become a victim of the purge?
K.C: So, essentially, a state will say that if you haven’t voted in, say, the last two elections, that your voter registration is now invalid and you have to vote again. So, they’ll throw you out — and yes, the Supreme Court just decided that it is legal. You can avoid this by checking your voter registration regularly, and if you are not registered, register again. You can check your registration on your state board of election website. Just Google “Check your voter registration STATE.”
ESSENCE: The strict new ID requirements disproportionally affect Black Americans. What can people do to make sure that they have the proper identification to vote?
K.C: 34 states require some form of identification to vote. 21 states require specific types of photo ID. They affect Black Americans the most because of the reason that most things affect us: systemic, structural racism. You can read all about voter ID laws at spreadthevote.org/why and brennancenter.org.
21 million eligible voters don’t have photo ID. If they live in one of the 21 states that require photo ID’s, they cannot vote. That’s where Spread The Vote comes in. We help people pay for all of the documentation required, help with transportation, advocacy, etc. We help them get the IDs they need for voting — but also jobs, housing, and more.
Every election site lists the ID required to vote. Check those lists and if you or someone you know does not have it, visit spreadthevote.org.
ESSENCE: People are saying that it isn’t enough to vote enough anymore. So, how can those people join the fight against voter suppression?
K.C: Voting is important! Make sure everyone around you can vote. And after the election, keep holding your elected officials accountable. Keep working in your community. Go to Board of Elections meetings. Get involved in organizations like Spread The Vote that gets IDs 365 days a year or Indivisible which holds members of Congress accountable year round. Join or start a civics education organization to teach young people and people in the community about local governance. Recruit great community leaders to be candidates and help run their campaigns and fundraise for them. Join organizations that are advocating for better voting policies like automatic voter registration, mail-in ballots and early voting.