From the start, this year’s primary election season has been a mess. However, the chaos of the poorly organized Iowa caucuses became a theme in many of this year's primary elections, making an enduring symptom of racism in America glaringly clear: voter suppression.
In 2013, the Supreme Court declared sections four and five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional in its decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, paving the way for states to make voting more restrictive. Citizens and their legislators have a responsibility to protect the right to vote, particularly in states that have historically made it difficult, specifically for Black, Hispanic and Indigenous voters.
While Chief Justice John Roberts and four other Supreme Court justices were able to cripple the VRA because they think that racism just isn’t much of a problem anymore, that hasn’t changed the real barriers that people of color face in trying to vote in U.S. elections.
Voter suppression today may not look like literacy tests or an explicit poll tax. Instead, practices such as strict Voter ID laws, felon voter suppression, a lack of voting sites and gerrymandering continue to suppress the vote. Fortunately, Congress can reinforce the VRA to protect voting rights. On the state level, nonpartisan redistricting boards can be adopted to diminish the effect of gerrymandering that could occur after the 2020 census.
In several state primary elections this year, a lack of voting locations in predominantly Black and Hispanic districts has discouraged many voters from remaining in line to cast their ballots. In Marion County, which is the state's most diverse,only 22 polling sites were open on Election Day compared to the normal 250 locations. This resulted in voters standing in lines for hours on end, lasting far past the 6:00 p.m. deadline.
These long lines were seemingly nonexistent just a short drive north in Hamilton County, where “voting seemed to be measured in minutes, not hours,” the IndyStar reported.
In addition to a lack of polling sites, Marion County didn’t count more than 1,700 ballots. Whether they were received after noon on Election Day or weren’t sent out to voters in the first place, Indiana voters attempted to use mail-in ballots this year more than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Georgia’s primary election was also plagued by voter suppression. There were hourslong waits to vote in predominantly Black districts, malfunctioning voting machines and often not enough ballots for people in line. For many, this was just the sequel to Georgia’s 2018 elections, in which then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp purged voter rolls just before the gubernatorial election, which he won.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also tried to suppress votes this year by requiring felons to pay all “legal financial obligations” before having their voting rights restored. Thankfully, that requirement was struck down in court. With the passage of Florida’s Amendment 4, people who have served the entirety of their felony sentence will be able to vote. Now, more than 1 million Floridians will be able to vote again.
This year’s census will also impact the weight of people’s votes for years to come, as local districts will be redrawn by state officials with the census data. Gerrymandering, the practice of drawing state congressional districts in irregular shapes to help a particular political party win elections more easily, has been used in past census years to diminish the voting power of minority communities.
However, nonpartisan redistricting boards are becoming increasingly common across the country. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order earlier this year establishing a nonpartisan redistricting commission in the hopes of creating congressional districts that better reflect the state’s population. "People should be able to choose their elected officials, not the other way around," Evers said at a press conference.
Wisconsin will be the 11th state to establish such a commission in the hopes of a more democratic voting process. However, Republican State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has opposed taking redistricting powers away from the state legislature.
If the U.S. is going to attempt to combat voter suppression, establishing independent redistricting boards and enough voting locations won’t be enough. Voters will have to call upon their representatives in Congress to reaffirm the entirety of the Voting Rights Act.
The right to vote is at the center of American democracy, but for too much of our history it has been denied to people of color. If we as a nation truly seek to build a more perfect union, we will need to fight in state and federal legislatures to protect that right.
Everett Kalman (he/him) is a junior studying law and public policy and is the vice president of external affairs for Culture of Care at IU. He plans on practicing immigration law in the future.