Carol Anderson’s previous book, White Rage, is one of the most important books I’ve read in recent years. It lays out clearly and methodically how white people have pushed back against every advance black Americans have made since the Civil War. So of course I was going to read her book on voter suppression. The question was just whether I could bear to read it before the election. I decided to go ahead and do that, because I figured depending on how the election goes next week, it might be even worse to read afterward.
Much like White Rage, this book clearly lays out how those in power have worked to make voting difficult to impossible for Americans of color and poor Americans. And it’s not just Republicans, although they’ve been the primary culprits in recent years. Anderson also recounts how southern Democrats instituted ridiculous and arbitrary tests for voter registration and how, more recently, Democrats (like Republicans) have been guilty of rigging voting districts in their favor through gerrymandering.
Each chapter details a different way that voting is made difficult or reduced the power of certain people’s votes. Besides strict registration laws and gerrymandering, there are voter ID laws and the purging of voter rolls, as well as uneven enforcement of the laws in place. There’s data and stories and so much information to enrage you, but instead of recounting some of the individual shocking stories (of which there are so many), I want to focus on just a couple of seemingly common-sense reforms that actually strip people of their voting rights.
For one, there’s voter ID. I live in a state that requires a photo ID to vote. As someone who drives, I’ve never seen it as a big deal. I almost always have my licence on me anyway. But many older people (and, increasingly, younger people) do not drive, so they won’t have a drivers licence. Back in 2002, the Carter-Ford Commission found that around 19 million Americans who were qualified to vote didn’t have a photo ID. Most of these people were young, elderly, poor, or black. And, for these folks, getting an ID isn’t necessarily easy. In Indiana, where free IDs were supposedly to be made available, the documentation needed to get the ID, such as a birth certificate, was often costly and difficult to obtain. An important thing to keep in mind here is that a process that seems simple to you may not be simple to everyone. And then there are people working to make the process harder, by closing offices that issue IDs. So those with limited resources and power lose the power of the ballot when they’re the ones who need that power most. And all this to combat a problem (voter impersonation) that barely even exists, if it exists at all.
Then there are the voter purges. This is something that has been in the headlines this year, particularly in Georgia, where the secretary of state, who is running for governor, removed hundreds of thousands of people from the voter rolls, many of them for not voting in past elections. Purges also take place to remove dead people or those who have moved away from the state. In a way, it seems sensible. It makes sense to want to have clean lists of who’s registered. But, as with voter ID, this seems to be a reform intended to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. And people often get misidentified and improperly removed, not even finding out until they go to vote. If a small handful of people slip by and vote in multiple states, does that justify taking away the voting rights of thousands upon thousands of people? No. The answer is no. Anderson clearly explains how these purges create a much bigger problem than the problem they’re intended to solve.
Other problems include the closing of voting precincts, usually in minority communities; the lack of adequate, functional voting machines (guess where?); limited hours at registration offices (where do you think?); and strict rules about whether and how to help people vote.
Reading the book made me even more determined than ever not to miss an opportunity to vote. I have to vote to speak up for those who can’t. As it is, Virginia is not one of the easier states for voting. We have voter ID laws, no early voting, and permanent disenfranchisement for those who commit felonies. I’m thinking about how I can help change that as well. This election season, I’ve been texting with Open Progress to help people check their registration and to get out the vote generally. But that’s just a drop in the bucket to combat a big problem. If you know of any organizations doing good work on voting rights, please share!