Photo by Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)
By Amanda Litvinov and Amanda Menas
Many states are looking to expand vote-by-mail during the coronavirus pandemic, to protect voters’ health while protecting their ability to vote. But so far, those state leaders aren’t getting much support from the federal government.
In fact, President Trump is participating in a disinformation campaign against vote-by-mail, one of many voter suppression tactics he has attempted. For years, Trump has pushed debunked falsehoods about high percentages of voter fraud and forged vote-by-mail ballots. Twitter recently took action, tagging the president’s tweets about voter fraud with a “Get the Facts” exclamation button.
It’s an about-face for many Republicans, who have previously promoted voting by mail. Members of the armed services vote by mail in every election, and Republican-dominated states such as Arizona have encouraged voters to send in ballots via mail. (The president himself even voted by mail in Florida’s primaries this March.)
The campaign against vote-by-mail has another prominent supporter within the Trump Administration: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The Guardian and OpenSecrets have revealed that a powerful dark money group, funded by the DeVos family, has picked up the fight to restrict voting in the 2020 presidential election.
Her family’s contributions fed into the so-called Honest Elections Project, an alias for the Judicial Education Project, which has called voter suppression a “myth”. The project announced it would spend $250,000 in advertisements warning against vote-by-mail and using misleading data to threaten legal action against jurisdictions accused of having bloated voter rolls.
Fostering fear of voter fraud and discouraging vote-by-mail efforts puts voters across the country at risk of being disenfranchised, or forces them to head to the polls even as the pandemic rages on.
Voter suppression undermines our fight for education justice
We know voter suppression undermines our democracy, and it also stymies our quest for education justice.
Research shows that voter suppression directly targets people of color, those who are poor, the elderly, and students. When these groups are excluded from voting, candidates who share their priorities have a harder time getting elected. These constituencies go underrepresented in our local, state, and federal government and in public discourse–and that directly impacts public schools.
Communities with less representation will likely receive less investment in their schools. Voter suppression means that students of color and those from low-income families are more likely to remain in underperforming schools.
These tactics mean that voters of color won’t get their say on proposals that could boost achievement for many students, like universal pre-K, more funding for Title I to support low-income schools, reigning in standardized testing, investing in public universities and historically Black colleges and universities, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
Voter suppression is nothing new in the U.S.
In the 1960s and earlier, suppression tactics were blatant: poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence at voter registration offices and polling stations. Thanks largely to the work of America’s civil rights activists, Congress understood that it had to act. And it did, in strong bipartisan fashion, when it passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In recent years, those seeking to curb voting rights, like Betsy DeVos and her family, have used insidious tactics that rely on fear mongering. By stoking fears that non-eligible voters could cast a ballot or that individuals could vote more than once—fears unsupported by research—conservative lawmakers garnered support to put more restrictive laws in place.
Thousands of voters of color have been disenfranchised by voter suppression tactics like illegal voter roll purging. Between 2010 and 2018 in the state of Georgia alone, 1.6 million voters were purged from the voter rolls, leaving them ineligible to vote. Thousands of absentee ballots were lost or rejected in that time, and more than 53,000 voter registrations were held hostage in “pending” status; 80 percent of these registrations were from voters of color.
Voter suppression efforts were kicked into high gear after the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case ripped the heart right out of the Voting Rights Act.
After that, conservative-controlled state legislatures went on a voter suppression binge. They shortened early voting, made it harder to register new voters, closed polling places, relentlessly gerrymandered political district maps, and put in place stricter ID requirements. Research shows that these tactics disproportionately affect people of color and the poor. Within 5 years of the Shelby decision, nearly 1,000 polling places were closed, many in predominantly Black counties.
It is impossible to calculate how many votes were lost to voter suppression, but an MIT study estimates that around 1 million eligible voters were not able to cast a ballot in 2016. Fourteen states had new, more restrictive voting laws in place in time for that election.
What can we do to combat voter suppression?
In December 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), which would once again require states with recent histories of voter discrimination to seek approval from the Department of Justice before making any changes to election laws. So far, the Senate has not moved to restore these critical voter protections.
Read about NEA’s work on Capitol Hill to restore voting rights. NEA has clearly articulated what Congress can do to protect voting rights during the COVID-19 pandemic: provide dedicated funding for states to protect citizens’ ability to cast a ballot. That includes expanding opportunities to register to vote, and much more access to early in-person voting, vote-by-mail programs, safe and viable in-person options, and voter education to inform communities of new practices.
NEA also works with partner groups dedicated to fighting voter suppression. Find out what Fair Fight is doing in Georgia and across the nation to protect the rights of all voters.