Voter suppression efforts seem ubiquitous. By the end of last month, legislators in 43 states had introduced more than 250 voting restriction bills, a pace that far exceeds last year. Why?
A simple answer might be anger over the 2020 election results, but if you dig deeper, other more nefarious issues lurk beneath the surface.
The struggle for the right to vote is a central theme in US history. The 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to make universal suffrage a reality. It is arguably the most important US civil rights law of the 20th century. Many, such as former American Political Science Association president, Arend Lijphart, contend that the US was not a truly democratic state until it passed. Recall that in 1964 only 6.7 percent of Black adult citizens in Mississippi could vote.
In response, the Voting Rights Act did more than outlaw voter suppression. It also, in Section Five of the law, required jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to get federal “preclearance“ before state or local voting laws could be changed.
Notably, the law’s existence did not stop voter suppression efforts. Between 1982 and 2006, the US Justice Department stepped in more than 700 times to block changes.
All of this changed when the US Supreme Court voted 5–4 in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision to invalidate the preclearance section from the Voting Rights Act. Almost immediately, state legislatures that were previously unable to enact voting restrictions were doing so. In 2016, the Brennan Center found 14 states had added restrictions after the Shelby decision. These included instituting voter ID laws that made it harder to register to vote, cutting back on early voting days and hours, and reducing the ability of people with past criminal convictions to regain voting rights.
What would today’s set of proposed changes achieve? A new Brennan Center study of Georgia finds that Black residents, who made up 31.94 percent of the state’s population in 2019, would be harmed the most. And when voting power is suppressed, as happened in Georgia in 2018, it has a consequent effect on economic power. For example, last year, economist Kathryn Edwards, writing for Rand about unemployment benefits, noted, “Southern states today have not only the lowest benefits; they also have the lowest recipiency rates among Black workers.”
A 2020 analysis of Georgia’s TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) or “welfare” program, conducted by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, reports that Georgia’s program widens racial inequality by:
- “Directing large shares of TANF funds away from direct cash assistance in order to offset tax and budget cuts.”
- “Providing extremely low amounts of cash assistance that are not sufficient for any family to meet even their most basic needs.”
- “Enforcing some of the most restrictive benefit rules in the nation that make TANF inaccessible for most families in deep poverty.”
In Iowa, where the governor just signed into law a bill that cuts the state’s early voting period and closes the polls an hour earlier on Election Day, the economic impact of voter suppression is also clear. One of Iowa’s large industries is meatpacking, in which employers hire immigrant and refugee labor and take advantage of linguistic barriers to maintain low wages. For a time, Waterloo, Iowa, was considered an aspirational destination for Black families looking to move up to the middle class, since jobs in the meatpacking industry were stable and paid well. But that changed long ago. (NPQ has also noted the failure of the industry to protect its workers from COVID-19.)
Restricting voting rights helps maintain economic and racial inequality by suppressing those who would likely support other policies. As James Larew, an attorney in Iowa City, writes in an op-ed published in the Cedar Rapids paper, the Gazette, Iowa has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the Upper Midwest. Its household income is 16 percent lower than neighboring Minnesota, and the state ranks 41st in air and water quality compared to sixth for neighboring Minnesota. Larew observes, “Fewer voters participating in elections means the likelihood of needed change is reduced—and voter suppression advocates know this.”
Dissect the racial makeup of some of the states that are so eagerly rushing to pass laws that target people of color, and you may find their populations becoming less white. In 2019 census data, Texas was 41.2 percent white, 11.8 percent Black, 39.7 percent Latinx, and the rest Asian, Native American, or mixed race. These figures differ only marginally from California, which is 36.5 percent white. For the white legislators who control the Texan state government, limiting voting by people of color is yet another way to maintain power and control. As NPQ noted last fall, some politicos see Texas as more a “non-voting state rather than a red one.”
While the push for new voter suppression laws is strong, it has been met with fierce social movement resistance. In Georgia and nationwide, civil liberties groups have targeted large Georgia-based corporations like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, United Parcel Service, and Delta to withhold support from state legislators who vote for voter suppression laws or face consumer wrath (and boycotts). And it’s working, at least to some extent; recently, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce issued a statement of “concern and opposition” to the measures the legislature is considering. Since issuing its initial milquetoast statement, Dave Williams, the chamber’s senior vice president for public policy, has issued a somewhat stronger position that rejects certain parts of the proposed laws.
Local civil rights groups are pressing for more. Deborah Scott, CEO of Georgia STAND-UP, told ABC News, “They’re hurting their economic base. We know Black and Brown and progressive folks yield a lot of economic power, and they buy these products…so they need to be good partners to their consumers.”
In Iowa, a lawsuit has been filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa (LULAC) to block the laws the governor has signed. The lawsuit states that the new law “will impose undue and unjustified burdens on a wide range of lawful voters, including some of the state’s most vulnerable and underrepresented citizens: minority voters, elderly voters, disabled voters, voters with chronic health conditions, voters who work multiple jobs and voters who lack access to reliable transportation or consistent mail service.” Expect similar actions and lawsuits in other states as these laws are passed and implementation is initiated.
High voter turnout clearly threatens many who are in power. The vote, despite its limitations, remains a powerful tool to effect change. Using the vote to move the needle toward real economic and racial justice has never been more necessary. Calling out voter suppression for the racist and economic control at its core is important. But even more important is stopping it.