As It Were: Voter suppression is alive and well in the United States

I once had a teacher that said something along the lines of, “There is no excuse not to vote in this country.” He definitely knew that limitations to voting exist for non-citizens, felons and mentally incapacitated (the latter two dependent on one’s state), but what he meant was that anybody eligible to vote can. If not overly circular, that is a true statement; anybody who can vote can vote. 

That being said the statement is uncharitable and ignorant of the reality of voter suppression in this country. American voter suppression is the same age as this country. There have been voter suppression highs (the Jim Crow South) and lows (the years following implementation of the Voting Rights Act), but it’s always been present. Since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidating sections four and five of the Voting Rights Act, which required state and local governments with a history of voter discrimination to preclear any changes to their voting laws or practices, voter suppression has been steadily approaching a new peak.

The face of voter suppression has changed throughout the years. The poll taxes, literacy tests and record-keeping requirements of the Jim Crow South have been replaced with voter-roll purges, cuts to early voting, poll closures and voter ID laws. The rise in voter suppression is found particularly in the South and Republican-led swing states and its consequences, while hard to exactly quantify, have been palpable. 

Perhaps the man who most personified this shift of voter suppression tactics is Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Kemp is a descendant of a once politically and economically prominent (and slave-owning) Georgia family that all but lost relevance in the years following the abolition of slavery. The would-be scion entered state politics in 2003 and was later appointed Georgia Secretary of State, before winning the statewide office as an incumbent. 

In the eight years he served before his infamous election to the Governor’s office, he was responsible for purging nearly 1.5 million Georgians from the voter rolls, half of which were purged in the two years immediately preceding his gubernatorial election. Over the same time period, more than 200 polling places were shuttered, doubling Georgian’s average distance to the polls, especially hard hit were Black and low-income communities — populations that would have been more inclined to vote for Kemp’s competitor, Stacy Abrams. And as if those two barriers were not enough, Kemp also implemented burdensome voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, and cuts to early voting. 

A report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and verified by multiple non-partisan statistics experts, concluded that without Kemp’s closure and relocation of voting places, an estimated 54,000-85,000 more Georgians would have participated in the election. Kemp won by 54,723 votes. 

These problems are not unique to Georgia or Kemp — since Shelby County v. Holder, thousands of polling stations have closed across the South. In fact, Georgia is only third on the list of the worst-offending states. 

In Texas, which is already ranked the hardest state to vote in by researchers at Northern Illinois University, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott recently limited counties to one absentee ballot dropoff locations, irrespective of size or population, a move that will hurt the most-populous counties that tend to vote Democratic. With the same intention, he exempted polling places from his statewide mask order — a truly indefensible order designed to intimidate the most vulnerable Texans. 

Voter suppression, in its current iteration, is the manifestation of the last gasps of a dying Republican Party that has nothing to stand for. A Republican Party that, even excluding its current leader, is increasingly populated by figures that are more than willing to buck democracy in order to obtain and maintain power. 

In the run up to the 2016 election, mainstream Republican commentator Ann Coulter used a tweet to muse about a hypothetical grandfather clause, writing that “If only people with at least 4 grandparents born in America were voting, Trump would win in a 50-state landslide.” Earlier this month, perpetually unprovoked Utah Sen. Mike Lee hopped on Twitter to declare that “We’re not a democracy,” a claim he qualified exactly five hours later with the not-quite-less-bizarre tweet “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [prosperity] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” 

To Republican leadership, the purpose of our democracy is to ensure the continued existence of the Republican Party and that continued existence is more important than democracy itself. It is with this ethos that they are emboldened to brazenly suppress voters and push an explicitly anti-democratic (note the lowercase D) agenda when it comes to statehood for Washington D.C., redistricting and, above all, voting.

The Republican Party is coordinated, from county clerk to president to the Supreme Court, in their quest to suppress the vote. The evidence is clear as day and this knowledge is critical in the fight against voter suppression. As Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic, “The true nature of voter suppression as an accumulation of everyday annoyances, legal barriers, and confusion has come into full view. Today, voter suppression is a labyrinth, not a wall.”

Understanding this doesn’t change the fact that virtually anyone eligible to vote can, with enormous effort, vote, but it acknowledges the real challenges faced by millions of Americans around the country as they attempt to surmount voter suppression from the hands of their so-called leaders to accomplish our most basic civic duty. This election, I’m voting for capital D Democrats for lowercase D democracy. 

Michael Mikail is a senior writing about race, culture and politics. His column, “As It Were,” runs every other Wednesday.