The Battle for Voting Rights Isn't Over

Sean Barry showed up at the same polling place in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, where he cast his ballot for Barack Obama in 2008. But when he got there, the poll workers informed him that his name was nowhere to be found on the voter rolls. They also told him he wasn’t alone; other regular voters had arrived only to find their names missing. All of them had to submit provisional ballots. Allegations of an illegal voter purge were already swirling, and Barry felt uneasy. “I feel unsteady about my vote being counted,” he said. But in the end, with or without Barry’s vote, Obama won Pennsylvania easily.

Voter suppression was only going to have an electoral impact if the race got within spitting distance, and in the end, the attempted voter purges, voter ID laws, and partisan decision-making by elections administrators were not enough to swing the 2012 presidential election to Republicans. It was supposed to pick off the votes of poor and minority voters who vote disproportionately Democratic. Instead, the efforts seemed to have the opposite effect, in some places, galvanizing communities of color. But the issue is far from resolved, and were it not for court orders in many states limiting the suppressive policies, the situation could have been much scarier. Voting rights activists now need to do what they can to keep awareness high post-election. If they do, they may have a chance to reframe the entire debate around casting ballots.

There’s little doubt that the plan to make voting harder backfired in several swing states with large minority communities. Turnout among voters of color, those most likely to be impacted by suppressive tactics, was high, particularly in swing states. African Americans matched their record vote in 2008, while Latinos came out in even higher numbers than last time. In minority precincts in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio, voters waited for hours to cast their ballots. People rarely stand for six or seven hours just to vote for a candidate—this was about their rights, too. 

It probably wasn’t a shock to the grassroots organizers spreading the word about the new voting changes. In August, when it appeared Pennsylvania’s voter ID law could disenfranchise a huge chunk of the minority community, I spent time with Joe Certaine, a longtime community activist who was leading the effort to get people IDs. He told me turnout would be higher with the law than without—because no one wanted to see their hard-earned franchise taken away. “The people united will never be defeated,” he said. “It’s just that simple."

But it wasn’t just people power—Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, like those in Wisconsin, Texas, and elsewhere, was not in effect on Election Day thanks to legal battles. A voter purge in Florida, which targeted disproportionately minority voters, stopped before a court could order it not to, while courts intervened in similar purges in Texas and Colorado. Many of those ongoing court battles will resume next year, and help set the tone for the next election.

Those same people who stood in seven-hour lines to make their voices heard would be well-served to get involved in the efforts to reform the election process as a whole. Given the outcome of the presidential race, there won't likely be any major post-election legal challenges. But make no mistake, around the country there were plenty of problems—ones with easy solutions. For instance, if there were stricter national standards surrounding how voters are registered and how voter rolls are maintained, we wouldn’t have seen the disturbing reports across Philly of regular voters showing up to discover their names weren’t listed—possible evidence of a last- minute purge. (A spokesperson from the Pennsylvania Secretary of State said the "list maintenance" was “nothing more intensive than normal.”)

Removing partisanship more generally would make an even bigger difference. In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted restricted early voting hours and made a series of decisions about provisional ballots that may result in some legitimate voters losing their vote. By moving election administrations to a non-partisan process—like the one in Wisconsin—rules about where, when, and how to vote would be made without regard for which party they help. It’s hard to imagine a reason other than partisanship for why long lines are particularly prevalent in minority precincts, for instance, where there seems to be a perpetual shortage of machines.

After elections, most people stop caring about provisional ballots and voting hours, the seemingly drier aspects of the democratic process. But this election may have illustrated bluntly what’s at stake. Fights over strict voter ID laws around the country helped show that in-person voter fraud is largely a myth, and exposed the partisan Republican agenda behind those laws. The first evidence of a shift in public opinion already came last night, when after polling showed the measure would win, Minnesota voters killed a proposal to create a voter ID law. Voting rights activists may be able to build on the unprecedented coverage of voting issues this election and the organizing they've already done to make fair elections a policy issue going forward. Just because the election is over doesn't mean the battle for voting rights is.

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