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Why voter suppression continues and how the pandemic has made it worse

The disenfranchisement of voters has been a part of America’s history for as long as it’s held elections, and this year is no different. From restrictive voter registration rules to limited access to polling places and early voting options, voters in some communities face significant challenges when casting their ballots. And in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, people seeking safer ways to vote are instead finding hurdles. In this episode, senior national correspondent Amna Nawaz talks to PBS NewsHour politics reporter Daniel Bush about what he learned from voters in key states trying to cast ballots this year, and to Emory University professor Carol Anderson about the history of voter suppression and why it’s still around today.

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Why voter suppression continues and how the pandemic has made it worse

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  • Ep 13:

    Why voter suppression continues and how the pandemic has made it worse

    PBS NEWSHOUR

  • Amna Nawaz:

    People often point to the United States as an example of what free and fair elections should look like. But, when the United States became a country, only white men — men who were wealthy enough to own land, by the way, could vote.

    It's only over the last century that all Americans got legal access to the ballot box.

  • President Lyndon B. Johnson:

    It is wrong–deadly wrong–to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And though the right to vote is ingrained in the U.S. Constitution, the ability to vote is not always guaranteed, especially for people of color, people with disabilities, and lower-income voters.

  • Bobbi Hague:

    Our forefathers fought hard for us to be able to vote, but it seems like we're constantly getting all kinds of obstacles put in our way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The fact is, voter suppression has been around since this country was founded. It just looks different today than it used to.

    Places like Wisconsin, Texas and North Dakota have strict voter indefinication laws that make it harder to vote. Other states have onerous voter registration requirements and cutoffs. And some states even remove people from their voter rolls–that's often referred to as "purging"–with little or no notice, or for illegitimate reasons.

  • Broadcaster 1:

    The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has handed victories to the party in a lawsuit over mail-in ballots…

  • Broadcaster 2:

    A lawsuit filed by the Texas Republican Party aimed at halting drive-through voting for…

  • Broadcaster 3:

    In Wisconsin, legal battles over mail ballot deadlines…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just this year more than 300 lawsuits were filed over exactly these issues. And now during a pandemic, the safest ways to vote–early and by mail–are being severely limited in some places.

    And on top of that, there are efforts to confuse voters by putting out conflicting information about requirements or locations–even timing.

  • Carol Anderson:

    When you create confusion in the system, it makes people wonder and worry if their votes are going to be counted.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In this episode, we'll look at voter suppression in America: what rules are being put into place to make it more difficult for people to vote, who's being most impacted by all that, and why after a century of expanding access, this is still happening today.

    From the PBS NewsHour, this is America, Interrupted. I'm Amna Nawaz.

    Dan, how are you doing today?

  • Daniel Bush:

    I'm alright, Amna. How are you?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Newshour's politics reporter Daniel Bush spent the past few months traveling to key states. He spoke to people about their experience trying to vote.

    Welcome back! You must be tired after all that time on the road.

  • Daniel Bush:

    It's crunch time. It's definitely crunch time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So you've been talking to voters across the country about what's on their mind during this election. There's a lot going on. You've done this a lot though, Dan, like over the last several months, did anything different or new strike you this time around?

  • Daniel Bush:

    One thing that really struck me and that stands out is the level of distrust, Amna, that so many voters said that they had around the process, around the system, around voting. Voters from Pennsylvania to Michigan to North Carolina and Texas telling me, listen, we don't trust that our vote is going to be counted if we mail it in. We aren't even sure our vote is going to be counted if we show up at the polls, but we want to do that anyway because we want to vote. We think this election is important. And yeah I've got to say that level of distrust was across the board from Republicans, from Democrats, from Independents, from everyone.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should point out, as we often do when we talk about the election, people have already begun voting, right? Early and by mail. Millions of people already. When you're talking to folks on the ground, are they sharing specific stories and specific instances of voter suppression?

  • Daniel Bush:

    A good example of that, Amna, someone that really sorta sticks out to me from my recent trip is Sedrick Blake. He's an African American man who told me that he felt that because of his race, he faces significant challenges to vote. He is roughly one of the 500,000 voters who were purged from the rolls in 2017 going into the 2018 election in Georgia. He had a lot of trouble voting and eventually had to cast a provisional ballot, but found out later that it wasn't counted.

  • Sedrick Blake:

    It took me a week and five trips to cast my ballot in 2018. So, yes, there has been a lot of difficulty to vote as a black man in Atlanta, Georgia. But I'm tenacious and I followed through. There are so many people who would have given up.

  • Glenda Blake:

    Right, here he is, an educated man, executive MBA, certified public accountant with transportation.

  • Daniel Bush:

    That's Sedrick's wife, Glenda.

  • Glenda Blake:

    He was finally able to get this taken care of. Could you imagine people whose jobs did not allow them the flexibility to take off to make the five or six trips back and forth between counties?

  • Sedrick Blake:

    It's very frustrating. Voting is a fundamental right for all Americans, and it should be easy to cast your vote.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So Sedrick and Glenda are Black. We know that Black people are disproportionately affected when it comes to voter suppression. But Dan, who else? Are there other groups, people with lower incomes, people with disabilities. Who else?

  • Daniel Bush:

    This really affects a broad range of people. The immigrant community is another very good example in Texas. Texas has a very large Hispanic population and I spoke with several voters there who said that they felt that they were personally under attack by President Trump, who has spoken very critically about immigrants overall.

    I talked to one voter, Flor Hoill, who was born in Mexico, came to the U.S. as a young child. And she said now she feels that her vote is being suppressed. And it was striking because Flor told me that she specifically picked a voting location, a voting precinct in an affluent white neighborhood because she was concerned about Trump supporters showing up to the polls in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods to intimidate voters to try and get people like her not to vote. And so that was top of mind for her as she was figuring out how to cast her ballot.

  • Flor Hoill:

    President Trump is doing everything he can. His administration is doing everything he can to keep people like me from voting. Trump hates my people. He talks about Latinos and Hispanics as pests, as criminals and rapists. And I fought to get a right to vote. A lot of people who have that privilege don't use it. And I came here undocumented. That was because there was no way for me to come, for me to come here legally and just because a person is undocumented doesn't mean that they're less of a human being. And Trump has treated undocumented people as less of human being."

  • Daniel Bush:

    Flor and so many other voters I spoke with, Amna, said that another way that their vote feels under attack is through the mail-in voting system. In the state of Texas it's one of just five states in the country that didn't expand access to mail-in voting specifically because of the pandemic. So the only way you can vote by mail in Texas is if you're eligible to cast an absentee ballot and the only people who can do that are voters who are aged 65 and older, people with disabilities and a few other categories.

    And the issue, though, is that a lot of those voters don't trust the mail-in system, as Flor and other people told me. They want to take those absentee ballots and hand deliver them because they told me they had concerns that if they put them in the mail, it wouldn't arrive on time. But the only way to do that in Harris County, in Houston, is to drop it off at one single location. And that's because the governor, Greg Abbott, a Republican, limited these drop off locations to one per county. So in Houston, that area where you could take your absentee ballot was outside of a football stadium in the middle of a big parking lot surrounded by highways. And it was just not accessible to people who don't have a car and Democrats argue that this was a pretty blatant form of voter suppression.

    And by the way, Amna, you know, we have to point out here that Harris County is one of the biggest counties in the country. Houston is the fourth biggest city. It's a Democratic stronghold in the state of Texas. So in addition to the very real challenges that specific voters face, it's also sort of symbolic of the bigger issues at play.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is just remarkable to think about the amount of time and energy and planning that would have to go in just dropping off your ballot in a case like that. But Dan, you've just told us about how the voters are looking at this. What about the people who actually run the elections? How are they reacting to and handling what look like hurdles for voters?

  • Daniel Bush:

    This is a tough task for these elections officials. I mean, they're trying to pull off an election during a pandemic. None of them have prepared for this. So at every polling location I went to, you saw lots of hand sanitizers and face masks are mandatory and all these steps to protect voters' health. But also these elections officials told me that they're looking at ways to make voting more accessible. I spoke to one official there in Harris County, Chris Hollins. He's the Harris County clerk in charge of elections. He's a Democrat. He took issue with the governor's restrictions on dropbox voting and said that it was just making it very hard for some people to vote.

  • Chris Hollins:

    My definition of voter suppression is anything that makes it less likely that a voter is ultimately going to cast their vote. Stirring up confusion, making voting inconvenient, putting obstacles in the voter's path, sharing misinformation with voters and so forth. You're making it so that they have to make a choice. I'm either going to risk my own safety to go and vote in person or I'm going to forego my right to vote. You know, in what we call a democracy, one of the most critical and fundamental pieces of a democracy is the individuals and the citizens in that democracy being able to direct how their government is run and who sits in those seats. And so to take that power away from voters flies in the face of what it should mean to be an American. And it is certainly voter suppression by definition."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So Dan, a lot of people are going to hear this and say, well, I've read about some of these stories, I've heard some of these in the past, but I don't see it. You know, this isn't a problem for me. It's not happening where I live or to anyone I know. So what do you say to those folks?

  • Daniel Bush:

    I'm glad you raised that, Amna, because it does highlight sort of the different experiences that Americans have around this. And you're exactly right. You know, there are some things that have changed in this pandemic that have made voting easier. So Texas is a good example. It- the state instituted drive through voting for the first time. So you get in your car, you show up at a drive-thru location. You don't ever have to leave your car. You're handed through your open window, the machine you cast your ballot and you're on your way. I spoke with some of those voters who said, you know, for me, that's the easiest and smoothest it's ever been. There have been no lines in some places. You know, for some voters, yes, they are looking at this and saying, you know what? What's the big deal? What's the problem for me? This is easy. But as we heard from some voters there are a lot of people who still face challenges. And so at the end of the day, this moment in voting does highlight some of the disparities that we're seeing in the pandemic more broadly in American life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Voter suppression is by no means new. For most of U.S. history, one group or another has had a difficult time–or been completely blocked from–voting. We wanted to know more about this history and why it's still going on today, so we talked to Carol Anderson.

    Dr. Anderson. Hi, how are you?

  • Carol Anderson:

    I'm fine. How are you?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She's a professor of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta and her book "One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying our Democracy" examines that history and a Supreme Court decision that–Anderson argues–made it easier to disenfranchise voters.

    Let's start at the very top. Let's start with the basics. Because when people think about voter suppression, when they hear the phrase "voter suppression," some things pop to mind. But you track this more closely than anybody else. So just walk us through: when you're talking about voter suppression in 2020, what does it look like? What are we talking about?

  • Carole Anderson:

    Voter suppression in 2020 looks like legalisms, policies that look race neutral, but that are, in fact, targeted at key constituencies in the electorate to make it harder for them to vote. So that we get like voter I.D. laws, you require driver's licenses, but you know that there that African-Americans disproportionately do not have driver's licenses. That's what voter suppression looks like. It looks like closing polling places so that about twelve hundred polling places have closed in those states that had been under the Voting Rights Act. And most of those places that have been closed have been in black, Latino and poor communities, under the guise of being fiscally responsible and just consolidating polls.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What are some examples you can point to in the last few years or even going on today that you consider to be among the most egregious?

  • Carol Anderson:

    Florida. Florida had permanent felony disfranchisement. So it meant even after you had served your time, paid your debt to society, you still face civic death. So by the time we get to 2018 of the over six million Americans who couldn't vote because of a felony conviction, 1.7 million of them were in Florida alone. And so there's a ballot initiative, Amendment Four, that says look, we cannot create this kind of civic death for our citizens. They have paid their debt to society. Let them vote. The initiative passed by about 65 percent of the voters. Immediately thereafter, the legislature crafts a law saying, oh, crap, we got to stop this. So let's say that completing your sentence means you have to pay all your fines, fees and restitution before you can vote. Now, that smells like a poll tax that you've got to pay to be able to vote. Because we don't require people to pay their property tax before they vote. We don't require people to pay their income tax before they vote. But now we're requiring people to pay this fee before they can vote.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Okay, so when you look at all the different forms of voter suppression nationwide, what's the cumulative impact of all of this? What does it mean?

  • Carol Anderson:

    When you see these really long lines, five hour, six hour waits, we had an 11 hour wait here in Georgia, what it's designed to do is to create voter depression, where the sense is that it doesn't matter what I do. My vote won't matter.

    And so people just stay home. That's what voter suppression is designed to do, is to create so many barriers, to create so much confusion. "Do I have the right I.D. or don't I? Okay, so do I stand in this line for six hours only to find out I don't have the right I.D.? Or do I stand in this line for seven hours just to find out that I have been removed from the voter rolls even though I didn't know I had been purged from the voter rolls?"

    What we saw in 2016, which was the first presidential election in 50 years without the protection of the Voting Rights Act because of Shelby County v. Holder, Black voter turnout went down by seven percent. that's the impact of–of these laws.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Okay, you're mentioning Shelby County v Holder and I want to make sure everyone knows what that was.That was a major Supreme Court decision seven years ago that you and others argued had a huge impact on who gets to vote. So explain to us what that decision said and what had happened since then.

  • Carol Anderson:

    So that 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder, was a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that gutted what's called the Preclearance Provision of the Voting Rights Act. Preclearance meant that a state could not implement a law dealing with voting before it had had the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts in D.C. And that was to stop the implementation of a racially discriminatory law from taking effect, shaping an election on denying American citizens the right to vote, and requiring years of litigation to try to undo that damage.

    John Roberts' decision said that racism was no longer the force it had been in America when the Voting Rights Act came into being, that the law picked on the South, that there was no need for this law anymore the way it had been. Well, that required that those justices ignored the reauthorization in 2006, just a few years before, where the U.S. Department of Justice laid before Congress over seven hundred proposed changes to the voting laws that the DOJ had blocked since 1982, because those laws were racially discriminatory.

    So if you're looking at over 700 proposed changes that were stopped because they were racially discriminatory, but saying "oh but we don't have that problem anymore," it requires a judge to not look at evidence and that's what we saw with Shelby County v. Holder. So two hours afterwards, Texas implemented its voter I.D. law and shortly thereafter, other states were following.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We're talking about all these different kinds of voter suppression and efforts just to suppress the vote. Who is it that they're targeting? What are some of the communities that are worst affected by some of these policies?

  • Carol Anderson:

    So when you trace it back to who is affected by these policies, you begin to see that the target is that Obama coalition. They were overwhelmingly African American, Hispanic, Asian American, young and the poor. Those constituencies that overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. And so part of the cover that Republicans use, like when it comes to gerrymandering, was that, you know, we're not targeting Black people. We're targeting Democrats. And so there is no judicial standard for partisan politics. There's only a judicial standard for when you are engaging in racialized forms of discrimination. And so as long as this isn't about race, we're good.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the role of–of disinformation, of misinformation, of sowing confusion into the electorate? What's the impact of that when it comes to suppressing vote?

  • Carol Anderson:

    What confusion does is it causes them to have to calculate time. Do I have the right I.D. to stand in this line for this amount of hours in order to be able to vote? Am I at the right polling station? Because if I'm not and I'm supposed to go across town, that's time that I don't have. So confusion, having misinformation out there, having disinformation out there creates another kind of poll tax on citizens because they're calculating how much do I have in order to be able to do this?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about during a pandemic, when you've seen a number of states trying in many ways to, you know, expand mail-in voting to make it easier for people to vote safely? Do you think that those efforts combat some of these efforts to suppress the vote?

  • Carol Anderson:

    So folks were trying to find a way to honor and secure their right to vote and their right to health. And that the way to square that circle, instead of standing in these long lines, was to do mail-in ballots. Once that reality became clear, that- it was almost like a Scooby Doo moment, right? Ruh Roh Shaggy. These folks are gonna go vote anyway. What are we gonna do?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That was a pretty good Scooby Doo, I have to say.

  • Carol Anderson:

    Thank you. So what they decided to do, I mean, this is where you see then Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr talking about mail-in ballots: that's nothing but fraud, that's where all of the corruption is, that's fraudulent. And using it as a way to delegitimize the use of mail-in ballots and the dismantling of sorting machines. All of these things to–to put confusion and fear in people that "OK, so I want to use a mail in ballot, but I don't know if the post office even works anymore. So what am I going to do?"

    So then you see states, states going: "okay, well, we're going to put in some more drop boxes." And then you have the Republicans suing states like Pennsylvania for trying to install more drop boxes or you have California Republicans putting in fake drop boxes with the label official drop box on it. And so then it's like, "okay, so I was going to use a drop box, but now I don't know whether this is the real drop box or not."

    So when you create confusion in the system, it gums it up. It makes people wonder and worry if their votes are going to be counted.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth pointing out a lot of people out there–I don't know if it's fair to say most people–live in a place where they have plenty of polling locations, right? There's no I.D. requirement and they can maybe even have same day registration to vote. They've never seen or experienced barriers to casting their ballot. And they might say, well, I don't see it happening here and I don't know anyone that these kinds of things have happened to. So how much of a problem is it really? What would you say to them?

  • Carol Anderson:

    We know that in communities that are predominantly white that they have more resources poured into those communities in terms of polling stations and poll workers and machines. And in communities that are predominantly minority, they have less. If you're in one of those predominantly white precincts, everything moves smoothly and you don't see it.

    There was a study done about Georgia's primary in 2020. And what this study found was that in precincts that were 90 percent white, that the wait time was six minutes. In precincts that were 90 percent minority, the wait time in line was 51 minutes. Six minutes, you're thinking eh pop in, pop out, go back to work. Fifty one minutes, you're looking at an hour and then you're making really different kinds of calculations. If you're seeing six minutes, you're like, "I don't know what they're talking about." And this is also a part and parcel of a strategy where minority communities are starved of resources and predominantly white communities, not so much. This kind of racial discrimination at the ballot box has national consequences. All of us are impacted by it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you have any hope that things will be easier at all this year?

  • Carol Anderson:

    Easier? Probably not. But hope. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah! One of the things that has struck me–it hit me in 2018–when I saw that turnout at the midterm–record setting turnout. The highest turnout we have had in a midterm since 1914. And I went "oooooo". My faith has always been with the people. And this is what we're seeing. We're seeing the people rise up and fight for this democracy.

    So, the people who are standing in line, even though they shouldn't have to, because what they're saying is we are going to vote out those folks who don't believe in democracy, who don't believe that I have the right to vote. This is where the hope is. People fighting for this democracy, people fighting through all of the voter suppression barriers that have been put in front of them. And you see it with all of the civil suits coming through from organizations that are fighting for this democracy. You see it from all of the grassroots mobilization of people registering people to vote, figuring out how to get people to the polls, getting people accurate information about where their polling stations are. So it's coming in in all of these different ways. That's where the hope is.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It gets said during nearly every U.S. presidential election: "This is the most important election in our history" or "your vote matters now, more than ever."

    But the truth is, every election has enormous consequences: for policy, for progress, and for the people.

    And even though voter suppression might not be top of mind for a lot of Americans, this election will have consequences for the future of voting rights.

    Whether it's state legislators, members of congress or the president, voters are picking the people who will go on to decide how we define free and fair elections in the United States.

    This episode was produced by Rachel Wellford and Vika Aronson, and edited by Erica R. Hendry and Emily Carpeaux.

    Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

    Our thanks to Travis Daub, Vanessa Dennis, James Williams, Maura Shannon, and Ryan Holmes.

    Our Executive Producer is Sara Just.

    You can follow all of our coverage on air and on our website: pbs.org/newshour.

    Thanks for listening.