In the face of Donald Trump’s declarations that this election is “rigged” and his requests to his backers to watch the polls in “certain areas,” voting rights advocates have labored to set the record straight that voter fraud is a myth and that “ballot security” often adds up to intimidation.
But as early voting gets under way in states around the country, the election is starting to look rigged after all—against voters of color. From Georgia to Texas and Wisconsin, election officials are asking voters for IDs where none are required, failing to process thousands of voter registrations, and limiting early voting so drastically that voters are standing in line for hours. Invariably, the voters affected are African Americans or Latinos, who tend to be more likely to cast their ballots in favor of Democrats.
It’s exactly what voting and civil rights advocates predicted three years ago, when more than a half-dozen states mostly controlled by Republicans enacted a slew of sweeping new voter ID and other limits on voting. GOP legislatures around the country sprang into action within days of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder to toss out key Voting Rights Act protections.
At the time, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented that weakening the Voting Rights Act was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Now it’s raining all over African American voters, despite a string of recent voting rights court victories.
Having convinced several lower courts to nullify strict state voting curbs as discriminatory, voting rights advocates have discovered that winning lawsuits is not enough. In many states, election officials have either directly flouted orders handed down by the court, or have found other ways to sabotage access to the polls—often at the direction of Republican Party leaders.
In Texas, a federal appeals court in July explicitly blocked the state from enforcing its voter ID requirement, one of the most stringent in the nation. (The state had approved only a driver’s license or a gun license for voting.) A federal court agreement specified that voters without IDs may still cast ballots if they sign a declaration and show an alternate ID, such as a utility bill.
But this week, civil rights advocates reported hundreds of complaints from voters turned away from the polls for lack of an ID, and provided documentation of polling places that display signs and flyers incorrectly stating that voters must have IDs. Part of the problem is the nation’s notoriously ill-trained army of mostly volunteer poll workers. But it probably doesn’t help that some Texas GOP officials exhorted election workers in at least one email “to make sure OUR VOTER ID LAW IS FOLLOWED.”
“Across Texas we are seeing local election officials undermine the weight of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling striking down the state’s photo ID law as discriminatory,” said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a statement. “Instead of changing the rules, some counties across Texas continue to impose the strict photo ID law and are posting signs that suggest to voters that the photo ID law remains in effect. This is simply unacceptable.”
In North Carolina, another July federal appeals court ruling struck key provisions of a far-reaching state law that had restricted early voting, limited registration, and imposed new ID rules. But the North Carolina GOP’s executive director nonetheless encouraged Republican election officials to reduce early voting hours, limit polling sites and close the polls on Sunday.
Now that early voting has begun in North Carolina, the impact on voters is measurable. A half-dozen counties have cut early voting, prompting a 50 percent decline in early balloting compared to the 2012 election, according to Liz Kennedy, director of democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress, which has put out a series of state-by-state issue briefs on preventing problems at the polls.
In Guilford, a county of 517,600 people where 42 percent of the residents are nonwhite, election officials cut early voting sites from 16 in 2012 to one this year, according to Michael P. McDonald, a voting expert at the University of Florida. The upshot is an 85 percent decrease in the number of in-person Guilford County voters on the first Thursday and Friday of early voting this year, compared with the same window in 2012.
In Georgia, a recent Washington Post report pointed to several particularly egregious voter suppression efforts. Election officials in Georgia have failed to process as many as 100,000 voter registration applications. As in North Carolina, one of the state’s largest counties made early voting available only at a single polling place, forcing voters to wait up to three hours to cast ballots. And in Macon-Bibb County, local officials moved a polling place in a largely African American region from a gymnasium that was under renovation to the sheriff’s office.
“When we complained, we were told if people weren’t criminals, they shouldn’t have a problem voting inside of a police station,” Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, a progressive group, told the Post. After activists objected, the polling site was moved to a church.
Led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, voting rights advocates have set up an election protection hotline and deployed volunteers to monitor voting irregularities around the country, as they do every year. But many new voting laws are still being fought out in court, potentially confusing election officials and voters alike. And the number of polling place watchdogs deployed by the Justice Department will be much smaller this year. That’s because the Shelby ruling concluded that states with a history of discrimination no longer need special federal oversight. As this year’s early voting demonstrates, that finding was woefully premature.