Elise Scott understands voter suppression. She’s seen it first-hand, growing up in the south in the 1960s.
“New voters had to be identified by two registered voters,” she recalled in an interview this week. “My father could not find two white men to identify him. Neither could any other black man.”
On Tuesday, she saw what looked like history repeating itself.
Scott, a Ph.D. who is the founding director of the Ronald Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University, led an “election day command center” that received reports from numerous states of people encountering obstacles between them and the ballot box. The center is named after the prominent African-American political science professor and writer who helped chronicle and guide the rise of black elected officials from the 1960s into the 21st century.
Changes in voter registration laws “might have hurt turnout and even deterred some people from voting due to new challenges,” Scott said. Outright violations of voters’ rights, or incidents that hindered voters’ ability to get out or actually vote, were prevalent throughout the 2014 midterm elections, she said.
Throughout the day, the Ronald Walters Center “monitored, analyzed, and reported out election day activity of African Americans in selected states throughout the united States,” Scott said.
In states where identification requirements changed, voters would often arrive at the voting booth only to find to be turned away because their identification was not on the “acceptable” list. In other cases, voters who requested an absentee ballot never received one. Then, when some of those voters appeared in person on election day, they were then turned away because they had simply requested for an absentee form.
In the state of Georgia, on election day, the Secretary of State website providing information on the location and hours of voting went down. Having the most reliable source for poll locations disappear on election day could have had “a chilling effect on voter turnout,” Scott said.
Then there is Texas, where hunting licenses – but not college IDs – were accepted as identification during registration.
In Alabama this year, voters who received provisional ballots mailed in their forms, but then, on election day, found they had been sent back due to “insufficient postage.” After hearing such reports on Tuesday, volunteers at the Ronald Walters Center encouraged these individuals to bring in their forms in person.
More broadly, Scott raised concerns about senior citizens, who often do not have a driver’s’ license and can no longer find their birth certificates. By the time of the election, it may be too late to obtain a state-issued identification card. Scott even singles out the fact that elections are held on Tuesday – a day where many low-income, minimum-wage workers cannot take off from work.
Scott points to the Supreme Court’s invalidation of parts of the Voting Rights Act that forced states with a history of voter suppression to have changes in their voting procedures reviewed to ensure they did not have a racially discriminatory impact. Originally, under the Voting Rights Act, citizens could appeal to attorney general that they felt something illegal going on in their jurisdiction. The state policies had to be approved by the Justice Department. But as soon as the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of voting rights act, Texas immediately introduced a new voter identification law. The effects then further spread through the south, implementing new laws that restrict voting.
Yet, there still is good news. Despite challenges, the Ronald Walters Center partnered with the Lawyers’ Committee of Civil Rights Under Law to connect with voters on the ground. The Lawyers’ Committee, under the leadership of its president, Barbara Arnwine, recruited a team of lawyers available to voters on call at any time. The lawyers would immediately address the voters’ issues, often times hoping to resolve concerns while voters are still at the booth. Scott cited that often, when faced with identification problems, voters will not return after the first failed attempt at the voting booth.
We can’t just look at the results of the ballots that have been cast and counted–we have to consider the votes that could have been cast but weren’t because of deliberate impediments to the voting process. It is time we fundamentally empower every citizen with their most basic right: voting.