How to Protect Yourself and Others From Voter Suppression

October 29, 2020

A presidential election during a deadly global pandemic is bound to come with its fair share of obstacles. But on top of a dramatic shift in how people are voting due to the pandemic, many Americans are facing a wide range of voter suppression tactics, including a potential rise in voter intimidation tactics and the spread of false information about voter fraud and mail-in ballots.

“The targets of voter suppression are often the new American majority — people of color, women, young people, students, senior citizens, even,” Celina Stewart, chief counsel of the League of Women Voters, told Supermajority News

There are ways to protect our vote and help others protect theirs, and the first step is to identify the numerous forms of voter suppression being deployed. Here are seven forms of voter suppression to look out for — and what you can do to combat them.

Reactions to the Pandemic 

“Since the primaries, we’ve seen the pandemic being used to make voting more difficult,” Stewart said. In some states, Stewart notes, “People have been made to choose between their health and safety, and their constitutional right to vote.”

Voters who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, or who live with people who are, may find waiting in long lines or casting a ballot in a crowded polling place too risky. Some states, especially Southern states, have made these conditions worse by decreasing the number of polling places available to voters. As a result, the number of voters assigned to one polling place has increased. Other states and counties have removed mailboxes and ballot drops, pressuring people to vote in person, which could be a risk some voters cannot take.

Even prior to the pandemic, shutting down and limiting available polling places has been a voter suppression tactic meant to deter people who may not be able to take time off work or school to wait in line to vote. But during a deadly pandemic, this is especially dangerous, as it could increase line and crowd sizes and create a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Nancy Abudu, deputy director of voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), says expanding access to vote-by-mail at this time has been critical, “not just for people with disabilities and people who are more susceptible to COVID, but also those who take care of them.” 

Earlier this year, SPLC and its partners sued states including Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, which required vote-by-mail to be permitted only with the presence of a witness, signature of a notary, or a copy of a government-issued ID. “Some of that is almost impossible if you’re staying home, which defeats the purpose of vote-by-mail,” Abudu said. “With COVID numbers increasing, not decreasing, and stay-at-home orders, making vote-by-mail accessible has been key.”

Voter suppression laws

Before the pandemic, voter suppression has been rampant across the country through voter ID laws, restrictions on formerly incarcerated people, and other policies that disproportionately target people of color and immigrants.

Since 2008, more than 30 states have considered or passed laws that would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID to be able to vote, even though up to 11% of American citizens — who are disproportionately people of color, immigrants, the elderly, people with disabilities, and trans folks — might not have IDs for a variety of reasons, including the high costs of obtaining them, inability to take time off work to get an ID at the DMV, and for trans folks, barriers to getting an ID that corresponds with their gender.

Voter roll purges are another common voter suppression tactic. This involves removing registered voters who didn’t vote in recent elections or removing voters under the state’s “exact match” law, which allows for a misplaced hyphen or comma in someone’s name to be used to remove them from voter rolls. Predictably, these purges disproportionately affect people of color, who are more likely to be blocked from voting in previous elections or have names that are more susceptible to the “exact match” law.

In states like Florida, laws restricting formerly incarcerated people’s voting rights serve as what some advocates call a “modern-day poll tax.” Because people of color are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, laws that deny the civil rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks disproportionately suppress the vote for communities of color. 

Voter registration obstacles and delays

Obstacles and delays that have prevented people from registering to vote before their state’s deadline have also emerged this election cycle. After people in Virginia and Florida were delayed or blocked from registering to vote altogether due to system shutdowns on their state’s last days to register, the League of Women Voters joined partners to expand the registration deadline. 

“We had powerlines cut in Virginia,” Stewart said, “we had the entire system down in Florida for eight hours. It was a disaster.”

Voter registration processes and tight deadlines are deliberately meant to keep people from being able to vote.

Intimidation at the polls

While “poll watchers” are generally allowed to monitor election administration, they are not supposed to interfere in the electoral process. Concerns have recently been raised, however, that some people may work as poll watchers to enforce forms of voter intimidations such as subjecting voters to targeted harassment, threats, and even violence for trying to cast a vote.

Stewart says that while this type of intimidation “isn’t a new problem” it is “certainly on the rise” this year. This was evident in Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s recent decision to launch an investigation into a Tennessee-based company advertising that it could provide armed guards as poll watchers in Minnesota.

This use of poll watchers to determine who may be trying to cast an illegal vote and intervene is inextricably connected to the country’s racist history of lynchings and murders targeting Black Americans trying to vote during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and for years after. Voters of color have always been targeted by state voting laws and also by white supremacist groups, who have seen a resurgence in recent years.

“There should always be poll watchers to support voters,” Abudu said, noting that the problem is the context in which they were called to serve this year. “It’s the veiled threat against communities of color, the veiled encouragement of hate groups to be present to threaten them.”

Tampering with ballot boxes and limited postal system capacity

California made headlines at the beginning of October when the state’s Republican Party admitted to installing illegal, misleading ballot drop boxes across the state. But it’s not just California — across the country, there have been reported incidents of ballot boxes being burned or stolen and removed, making dropping off your ballot more difficult and potentially resulting in some ballots being stolen or not counted.

Small errors that lead to ballot rejection

Voting by mail has become especially prevalent this election cycle due to precautions taken for the pandemic, and several small, common errors can lead to ballots being rejected and votes not being counted. 

These errors include signing your ballot with a signature that doesn’t match your voter registration card, using the wrong envelope instead of the envelope that’s provided to turn your ballot in, failing to use black or blue pen ink, or not sending your ballot on time. Every election, hundreds of thousands of ballots are rejected for common, preventable errors that many voters aren’t informed about.

Vote-by-mail has also recently been impacted by a Supreme Court decision to block ballots in Wisconsin that are received after November 3. Last-minute changes to when ballots are accepted or must be submitted can create confusion among voters, and lead to ballots that arrive late, and therefore are rejected.

Targeted misinformation campaigns

Another form of voter suppression on the rise has been targeted misinformation directed at people of color. According to some reports, Russian disinformation campaigns have targeted Black American voters in particular. Other reporting shows that Latinx voters are being targeted by political ads and articles promoting right-wing conspiracy theories.

While misinformation may not create direct barriers to casting a ballot, it could discourage people who would otherwise vote by sowing doubt about the system’s legitimacy and effectiveness. And misinformation certainly disrupts voters’ ability to cast informed ballots and make political choices based on accurate facts. 

“There are robo-calls, there’s infiltration of websites and social media, confusing voters about how they can vote and what information might be shared about them or what risks there might be — all of that misinformation is a form of voter suppression,” Abudu said. 

Targeted misinformation and exploitation of lax social media policies on fake news played a critical role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Despite political advertising policy changes and new content moderation standards adopted by Facebook and Twitter since 2016, reports show these misinformation campaigns have remained prevalent and target voters of color, in particular, whose votes or lack of votes could decide the election.

“The only solution is combating this through correct information, making sure people know what the truth is,” Abudu said.

Ways to protect our vote and others’

With so many voter suppression tactics weaponized to shape the election, trying to vote can be daunting. But there are crucial ways each of us can protect our vote and help others protect theirs. 

First, voters can make sure they have the information they need to make sure their vote is counted, including finding the early voting date range in their state, making sure you know your correct polling place, and educating yourself about other options for voting in your state at your secretary of state’s website. If you can, reach out to voters in your life to help them create a similar, foolproof plan that will ensure they vote by November 3. 

If you encounter voter suppression — either targeted at yourself or others — make sure to document the issue, report the experience to the county clerk and election officials, and call the legal hotline number 866-OUR-VOTE.  

If you choose to vote by mail, you can follow a basic checklist to make sure your ballot is counted. 

Finally, make sure to be critical of the news sources you read and share.

Every vote counts this election cycle. We’re voting for more than candidates — we’re voting for democracy itself.