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Fighting voter suppression will take coordination and commitment

Lawrence Goldstone
The Fulcrum (TNS)

In a previous column, I wrote that despite new state laws aimed at suppressing voter turnout and the likelihood that the Supreme Court will dance past all but the most egregious abuses, it has become almost impossible to prevent a motivated, determined American, educated in the process, from both registering to vote and then casting a legitimate ballot.

The traditional means of voter suppression, such as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, are outlawed; the newer methods — enhanced identification requirements, for example — can make voting maddeningly cumbersome but not prevent it. Still, many Americans, no matter how motivated and determined, will need support in order to navigate the increasingly Byzantine environment created by those who would forgo even the veneer of democracy to maintain minority rule.

Minority rule was built into the Constitution with two senators per state and the Electoral College, and it has been the norm for virtually the entirety of American history. But since its founding, the United States has been moving slowly and haltingly toward inclusion, removing such bars to voting as race, gender and property ownership. Now, however, for the first time in more than two centuries, there is a serious effort to reverse that progress.

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Those who believe in honest elections must work to counterattack voter suppression efforts. (Dreamstime/TNS)

There are three phases of the voting process — registration, casting ballots, and ensuring they are properly counted and recorded — and each has its own set of challenges.

To ensure that everyone who intends to vote can remain registered, the first step is to identify those whose registration may be in jeopardy because of changes in state law, a demographic disproportionately elderly and Black or brown. For these Americans, it is vital that they have proper identification, a valid current address, signatures that match the voting rolls and, if they have not voted recently, proper re-registration. Conservatives are counting on many of these voters, particularly the elderly, being unaware of changes in the law that would potentially disenfranchise them.

Counterattack: There are ample examples of how those who believe in honest elections can counterattack. Groups such as Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action have had success in not only locating potentially disenfranchised voters but also in ensuring that their right to vote will not be rescinded. Grassroots organizations with similar goals exist throughout the nation, as do motivated religious leaders, but they need money and resources to succeed. Some form of national coordination for fundraising, with local groups deciding what strategy would work for them, would be optimal, but local groups can achieve a great deal by merely organizing within their communities.

The courts will be of little help. While it is possible that some judges will attempt to strike down some of the more transparent attempts to limit voter registration, the Supreme Court has shown little appetite to intrude on the right of states to set their own voting rules, even if they seem to be obviously in violation of the 14th and 15th amendments.

For the second stage of the process (casting ballots) and the third (ensuring that those ballots are properly counted), many of the battles will be in the courts. Where the first wave of new laws focused on inhibiting registration, more recent efforts, such as those in Texas and Georgia, are aimed at limiting voter turnout by closing polling stations, restricting mail-in or absentee balloting or reducing the number of days in which voters can cast ballots. These laws target urban centers and especially neighborhoods with a large percentage of Black residents.

With options limited, casting a ballot could well involve extensive waits on long lines moving at glacial speed. Since Election Day is not a holiday in many states, conservatives hope that many African Americans will be unable or unwilling to risk their employment by taking an entire day off in order to vote. Community and religious leaders, therefore, should pressure local businesses to make Election Day a paid holiday, or at least stagger working hours so that employees have ample time to wait in line. Early voting, while restricted, will still exist, so advocates should encourage as many as possible to cast their votes before Election Day. Those who need absentee ballots must be informed of the updated rules for requesting them. Finally, voting lines need to be surveilled to ensure that those waiting to vote are not subject to intimidation, either by self-styled “patriots,” such as the Proud Boys, or by antagonistic voting officials.

Lawyer up: Where abuses are noted, lawyers must be available to instantly seek injunctions. The courts may be of more help here, as most jurisdictions contain at least some judges who take a dim view of voter intimidation. The Supreme Court, less likely to rule on behalf of disenfranchised voters, will be unlikely to be involved in disputes over state jurisdiction.

Many of these steps have been taken in the past and are planned for the future, but an ad hoc, slapdash approach will not be fully effective against a ruthless and implacable foe. Once again, what is needed is a national effort, either under the aegis of a political party or an expansion of groups such as Fair Fight, to recruit, coordinate and fundraise for what will require many volunteers and a good deal of money. Community groups, religious leaders, local officials and even businesses and corporations can and should play a part.

After the votes are cast, conservatives have embarked on a concerted campaign to make tallying them up a subjective rather than an objective exercise. While the threat that political hacks or right-wing ideologues will simply void an actual vote and substitute their own result is real, the total failure in the courts of pro-Trump lawsuits in 2020 would indicate that here, at least, even the conservatives on the Supreme Court have drawn the line. In addition, in those states that have allowed outsiders to observe the vote counting process, pro-democracy forces can be every bit as aggressive as their opponents.

In the end, it will take more than a village to ensure honest elections — it will take an army. Americans must come to the realization that democracy must be earned, and likely earned more than once. It is sad that elections in the United States have come to resemble those in Third World nations trying to implement democracy after generations of dictatorship, but if the majority is to finally have its voice heard in our government, perhaps that comparison is more apt than most Americans would like to believe.

— Lawrence Goldstone’s most recent book is "On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights."

— The Fulcrum covers what's making democracy dysfunctional and efforts to fix our governing systems. Sign up for our newsletter at thefulcrum.us. The Fulcrum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news platform covering efforts to fix our governing systems.