What Is Voter Suppression, and What Does it Look Like?

Thousands of would-be voters' voices are shut out of elections across the country. Here's what we can do about it.

election 2020 mail voting women
Photo: Getty Images. Design by Jenna Brillhart

In the weeks leading up to Nov. 3, millions of American women will cast their ballots for the 2020 general election. It will be more difficult for some women than others.

Perhaps you remember the viral photos of miles-long lines during the spring and summer primary races. Or the videos of voters in Jefferson County, Ky., being locked out of the only polling place in the area this past June. Many voters in areas ranging from Fulton County, Ga., to New York City said they never received the absentee ballots they had requested. All of that confusion, as well as broken voting machines, punishing voter ID laws, among other prohibitive policies, can leave would-be voters feeling discouraged, and like the voting process isn’t worth the headache they endure when they try to cast their ballot.

All of these issues and more are forms of voter suppression, which is when lawmakers and election officials enact policies that make it harder for some people to vote. These tactics tend to target young people; those who have been incarcerated; and racial and ethnic minorities, particularly Black Americans. And rectifying voter suppression is especially urgent for women and especially women of color, who have historically been shut out of politics, whose rights are continuously threatened by restrictive legislation, and who still lack adequate representation in government. Despite these hurdles, women continue to show up and vote. But it shouldn’t be a hassle to cast your ballot.

DeJuana Thompson, the co-founder of the social impact group Think Rubix and the founder of its Woke Vote initiative, first became really attuned to voter suppression efforts in 2007, just before she began working on then-Senator Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. “At the time, I was working in municipal government, and we were really trying to think about how to engage voters in the upcoming election,” Thompson, who is from Birmingham, Ala., told InStyle. “As I was trying to get information and pull up voter data to understand where a lot of our prominent polling locations would be, I found so many discrepancies,” most of which, she added, were in communities of color. She has since seen similar patterns that specifically target marginalized communities across the country.

Voter suppression, she added, “is very intentional. It’s very thought out. And it is a deeply-rooted practice of those who desire to suppress the vote.”

For decades, activists have mobilized against overt intimidation tactics and laws designed to disenfranchise millions of Americans from their right to vote. And Thompson and others doing work on the ground shouldn’t be doing this work alone: It’s up to all of us to ensure that women of color and other marginalized people can make their voices heard at the polls as easily as anyone else.

What Does Voter Suppression Look Like?

Understaffed and underprepared voting locations can result in hours-long lines on election day. Just as insidious is the move in recent years by states to shutter crucial voting locations in neighborhoods that serve minority voters. At least 1,600 polling locations across the United States have closed since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which undid a core provision of the Voting Rights Act meant to keep states with a history of voter discrimination in check. Texas alone has closed at least 750 locations in the years since that decision — and according to Raven Douglas, the political director at MOVE Texas, that is just one of the ways in which Texas voters have been disenfranchised by their elected officials.

“A lot of times in Texas, the polls are only open from 8 [a.m.] to 6 [p.m.],” Douglas said, noting that those hours can place particular strain on mothers and other caregivers looking after children. “Either you have to bring your children with you to the polls or figure out who’s going to watch them … I definitely think the limit on voting hours has put a lot of pressure on parents in general, but especially mothers who need to figure out how they’re going to vote [and who also] worry about childcare.”

Though Texas offers early voting to registered voters, strict voter identification requirements can discourage many people who might not have one of the accepted forms of photo ID. “You can use your concealed handgun license to vote in Texas, but you can’t use your student ID to vote,” Douglas said, pointing to one of the many efforts by state lawmakers that activists say are an effort to suppress progressive student votes in particular. “On the face of it, you’re like, well, this is Texas, it’s a big state, everyone has a car, everyone drives,” Douglas said. “But when you look at the statistics, Black voters and Latinx voters are less likely to have a state ID or driver’s license compared to other voters.”

Another issue, according to Mary-Pat Hector, a program strategist at RISE who recently launched the Black the Vote Training Academy, is the practice of “exact match” requirement for voters’ names, which can particularly impact women who changed their names after a marriage or a divorce, or people with symbols such as hyphens, apostrophes, or accented letters in their names. “My name is Mary-Patricia, and many people forget that I need to hyphenate it,” she told InStyle. “So as a Black woman with a unique name, many times things like that can infringe on my right to vote. A lot of people who might forget a symbol in their name on their voter registration card or their ID might not be able to cast a vote just by that one simple mistake.”

In 2018, a Georgia judge ruled that the “exact match” requirement installed by then-Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp put an undue burden on voters; the ruling came down days before the midterm election, which was also plagued by purged voter registrations, polling location closures, and more. A 2020 report by the House Oversight Committee slammed the governor for allegedly “stonewalling” its investigation and “mocking” claims of voter suppression in his state.

Hector also noted the major discrepancy in that election officials are shutting down polling locations in communities with a plurality of Black residents. “We saw polling locations in places like DeKalb and Fulton Counties close, where our counterparts in places like Duluth were literally in line for 15 minutes,” she noted. “So you start to think, is this a planned, organized effort to stop people of color from voting?”

“In order to protect the right to vote for Black women, we need to ensure that we can access the ballot or access polls within our own communities,” she said.

The Attempts to Silence the Most Consistent Voters

Though Thompson says she hasn’t seen a dedicated effort to suppress voters on the basis of gender, she knows that concerted efforts to target voters through classist, racist, or ageist lenses can coalesce to target some of this country’s most dedicated voices: Black women. Fifty-five percent of eligible Black women voters cast ballots in the November 2018 midterms; as Fortune noted, the national average for voters across demographics was only 49%. There are also more voting-eligible women of color in the United States than ever before, up by more than 13 million since 2000 alone.

“As you look at how voter suppression actually permeates and who it impacts the most, you have to look at the people who are voting the most,” Thompson said. “And in communities of color and communities all over this country, the most impacted group of voters are Black women.”

Douglas agreed, adding that such efforts can have an outsized effect not only on who is ultimately elected to office, but the issues that are pushed through state and federal legislatures. “Black women, time and time again, show up for progressive issues,” she said. “And there’s absolutely a concerted effort to try to dilute their votes.” A Trump advisor has even agreed that Republicans have “always” used voter suppression tactics to stay in office, which can lead to discriminatory laws and policies that impact Black women and women of color in particular.

“We [Black women] are some of the most dedicated voters in this country, so why is that our issues are always placed on the back burner?” Hector asked. She added that candidates, politicians, and political parties alike “forget Black women when we show up for them all the time.”

That we are discussing this issue now, near the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, isn’t lost on Douglas. In the wake of that historic amendment, which is broadly remembered as giving women the right to vote, many states created suppressive tactics that targeted Black women and other women of color. The end result? For years, the 19th amendment primarily benefited white women, though many Black suffragists dedicated their lives to ensuring they would be heard at the polls, too.

“The whole context of voter suppression is to stop people from voting, and we know that Black women consistently turn out to vote every single time,” she said. “But I also think that their rates show their resilience… Time and time again, whether it’s voting or other issues, these things still happen and we still make it happen. There are obstacles and barriers, but we will still overcome.”

Voter Suppression in the Era of the Coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the problems of plenty of already-precarious systems, including election procedures: Some states delayed spring primaries in order to implement wide-spread mail-in voting strategies to allow voters to socially distance, while other voters showed up to understaffed or even closed polling locations whose workers were scared of contracting the novel coronavirus. Compounding that is a near-constant barrage on the integrity of mail-in voting by the Trump administration, despite the fact that the president himself has voted absentee numerous times.

“I think what we’re seeing now is a kind of cultural voter suppression or a soft voter suppression where, by casting doubt on vote by mail or the integrity of the election, certain politicians are trying to make voters question whether their vote will be counted,” Max Lubin, the co-founder and CEO of RISE, told InStyle. “That’s just as important a form of voter suppression because voters’ ideas about whether their vote will matter in an election has a huge effect on whether they decide to actually go and vote.”

As Hector noted, many people in Georgia are now worried that they could relive what they were made to endure during the June 9 primary. “A lot of Georgians are now afraid to request an absentee ballot, because during the primary election, they never got them,” she said. Georgia’s voting laws mandate that voters who decide to vote in-person after requesting an absentee ballot must first receive permission to do so from a registrar or clerk; other states allow you to simply show up to vote on Election Day if you changed your mind or could not otherwise cast your absentee ballot for whatever reason.

“So many people are saying, you know what, I’m going to risk my life on Nov. 3 to show up and actually vote in person,” Hector said. As a result, she’s urging people to sign up to serve as poll workers or pass out snacks and water to those waiting in lines. “Bring folding chairs or whatever you can to ensure that our elders in the community have some place to sit as they’re trying to cast their ballot,” she said, “because we expect these long lines.”

“What we know is that there has been a historic under-engagement of communities of color in particular, specifically in this country,” Thompson said. “So there is a lot of room for those who are running for office or running traditional organizing programs, to get this right in terms of organizing intentionally, engaging strategically, and doing it all within an authentic lens.”

Putting an End to Voter Suppression for Good

All of the organizers InStyle spoke with stressed the need for voters to understand their rights, and to get involved at polling locations themselves. Woke Vote is also working with We the Action, a coalition of lawyers dedicated to protecting voting rights, and RISE’s Black the Vote campaign is dedicated to empowering Black college students in Georgia to work as poll workers or poll watchers, who help insure the integrity of a given voting location.

“We are really looking to expand the work that we do at historically Black colleges and universities in general,” Hector said, adding that while Black the Vote is centered in Georgia right now, she’s excited to expand the program to HBCUs across the country. She and her fellow activists are also logging onto apps like NextDoor to engage with neighbors and other community members to ensure they’re registered to vote.

RISE is also dedicated to mobilizing young people as poll volunteers, and in supporting Black women leaders. That work, Douglas said, helps “ensure that Black women continue to have a seat at the table, not only when it comes to voting, but also when it comes to [building] the Texas that we want for ourselves. How as community leaders can we shape that Texas? We always say we’re trying to build a Texas that believes in us.”

She would also hate for voters who have had adverse experiences during previous elections to feel discouraged. “What we’re constantly telling people is that your vote matters so much that there are people in place who are trying to disenfranchise you and make it harder for you to vote,” she said. And while many people try to blame disengaged or disenfranchised groups for not voting, Douglas stressed, “It’s completely unfair to blame the victims of an oppressive and racist system when we should really be looking at the people in power who are setting up those barriers and making it harder for people to cast a ballot.”

“The number one reason why voter suppression exists is to take your voice and your vote,” Thompson added. “So prove them wrong. Even if it takes all day to figure out how to vote, even if you have to stand there all day long … Don’t let anybody take away your power.”

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