In the lead-up to Election Day, incidents of voter intimidation and efforts to manipulate the vote count have been reported across the country.
In Arizona, far-right groups and armed people have been spotted at ballot drop boxes. In California, residents have reported Republican door-knockers grilling them about their voting practices. And in Maryland, a Republican candidate’s campaign manager was recorded telling supporters to vote “as late in the day as possible” and create “long, long lines.”
The reports have intensified concerns among voting rights advocates, who are already on edge with the proliferation of new voting restrictions this election season. Since the 2020 presidential election, 19 states have enacted laws that restrict voting access, including ending the automatic mailing of absentee ballots and implementing strict voter ID rules. Early voting opened in many states this year with fewer polling stations and mail-in ballot drop boxes, changes that disproportionately affect Black residents.
Lawmakers who supported those bills often say they were created to prevent voter fraud and protect democracy. But with claims of systemic voter fraud widely debunked, opponents say the new rules are thinly veiled voter suppression efforts intended to make it more difficult for citizens, specifically those in communities of color, to cast their ballot.
“Census data indicates the new American majority is Black and brown folks, and so with that comes their ability to vote and change representation, to change the priorities of this country,” said Yterenickia Bell, senior advisor for voting rights for the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights. “So, of course, there has been an effort to kind of intimidate, spread disinformation and misinformation around voting to reduce individuals from showing up. It’s just a tactical way of trying to reduce and dilute power.”
If voting rates are any indication, the tactics aren’t having a significant effect. So far, early voter numbers this election season have far exceeded those of the previous midterm cycle in 2018. As of Oct. 30, more than 20 million early voters had been counted this year, compared to just 11 million by Oct. 23, 2018. In five states, more than 1 million early voters have been counted, and four of those — Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas — are Republican-led states where new barriers to voting have been enacted.
In other cases, lawmakers in at least two dozen states implemented laws that expanded access to early voting, many originating in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, there are concerns that Election Day could bring more challenges for voters, particularly those of color. Gilda Daniels, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor, predicts that there will be long lines at precincts in Florida and Georgia where new voter ID laws might confuse voters and complicate the voting process. Georgia limited the type of identification that can be used at the polls “knowing that 25% of Blacks do not own a car, and a driver’s license is the most common of the allowed forms of ID to vote,” Daniels said.
These types of voter restrictions date back over 160 years to the passage of the post-Civil War constitutional amendments that gave Black men voting rights. In response, some lawmakers in Southern states enacted disenfranchisement policies, such as the grandfather clause and literacy tests, that cut the Black male voter population.
In Louisiana — after the grandfather clause, poll taxes, and other methods of disenfranchisement were implemented — the Black male voter population dropped from about 100,000 to 1,000, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Similar steps were then taken in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Lawmakers took it a step further by using criminal law to disenfranchise. Crimes that officials viewed as more likely to be committed by Black men than white men, such as timber theft, would result in the loss of the right to vote, Daniels said.
“If you committed murder or rape, you could still vote,” she added.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and vestiges of those rules can be seen today. This summer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 formerly incarcerated people, mostly Black, who had cast ballots in the 2020 election. (At least one of those voter fraud cases has been dismissed.) In Tennessee, a Black Lives Matter activist who thought she had completed her probation was charged with illegally registering to vote, a conviction that has since been overturned. In Texas, a woman was charged with voting in the 2016 election while on probation for a federal felony tax fraud. Her conviction is currently under review by the state’s Court of Appeals.
Civil and voter rights advocates call these cases forms of voter intimidation against millions of potential voters with felony convictions who are mostly Black and Latino.
“Due to 2020 and the outpour of voters, there was definitely a desire from some folks to intimidate those voters and ensure that they don’t show up,” said Bell. “I think this is a part of the tactic.”
The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, along with their coalition partners, is working to dispel disinformation and address voter intimidation tactics in several states. Bell said that, in conversations with early voters across the country, they said that they’re largely motivated by ensuring a better quality of life for themselves and their families — and not voting for candidates on face value.
Along with abortion laws and access to technology in schools, Bell says “inflation is definitely a top issue for folks, and they want representation that is going to fix those issues.” These are “the driving forces for people showing up at the ballot box,” she says.
Voters may not know until well after Election Day how their votes might have shifted representation in Congress, in governor’s mansions, and in local elected offices. Absentee and mail-in ballots could be pivotal in close races and aren’t counted until after the polls close.
But as they work to secure voting rights for formerly incarcerated people and other disenfranchised populations, advocates are encouraging voters not to be dissuaded by the barrage of suppression and intimidation efforts.
“This may sound cliché, but voting is power,” Daniels said. “Black people have been in this country for over 400 years, and we’ve only been voting for a little over 50. If voting is so inconsequential, then why are there so many laws in certain states that are trying to make sure Black and brown people don’t vote?”