This year, the United States is experiencing the convergence of two public health crises—COVID 19 and racism—and issues like health care and civil rights are both centered in our national dialogue and reflected in our choices on the ballot. Voting is one significant way individuals can express and shape what matters most to them.
As Justice in Aging points out “(a)ll older adults, but particularly older adults of color, older women, LGBTQ older adults, older adults with disabilities, and older adults who are immigrants or have limited English proficiency have much to gain or lose in elections, particularly when it comes to the protection and expansion of access to programs that help them meet their basic needs including health and long-term care through Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security benefits.”
Our country has historically disenfranchised marginalized populations and today individuals from these groups continue to face significant barriers to voting in this year’s general election.
This blog will briefly examine our nation’s history of voter suppression, discuss present day barriers to voting, and conclude with some voting resources to use and share with others to help every person know their voting rights and use their voice in this election.
A History of Voter Suppression
The United States has an ugly and deep-rooted history of voter suppression. Tactics like poll taxes, voter literacy tests, illegal intimidation, and violent interference have long disenfranchised countless citizens, in particular Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), from the right to vote.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Yet, in the decades to follow, discriminatory practices were used to prevent African Americans, particularly those in the South, from exercising their right to vote.
The women’s suffrage movement, a decades-long fight, led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. It promised women that their right to vote would “not be denied” on account of sex. That promise was only afforded to some women and excluded millions of men and women alike.
Native Americans were not granted full U.S. citizenship until 1924 and had to fight for their right to vote, state by state. The last state to fully guarantee voting rights for Native Americans was Utah in 1962.
It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that literacy tests were banned. The act also provided for federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50% of the non-white population had not registered to vote and authorized the U.S. attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. Still, state and local enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was inconsistent and often wholly ignored.
The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 required accessible polling places in federal elections for elderly individuals and people with disabilities, yet in 2016 only 40% of U.S. polling places were deemed accessible to voters with disabilities.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act, removing one of the most powerful means to ensure equal access to the ballot. In essence, the decision invalidated a requirement that certain states and jurisdictions obtain federal preclearance before making changes to voting laws or practices. With this ruling, communities now facing new discriminatory voting laws must file lawsuits themselves or rely on Justice Department suits or challenges from outside advocates—sometimes after the discriminatory laws have already taken effect.
Barriers to Voting Persist Today, Particularly for Older Adults and Other Individuals from Marginalized Communities
As reported by the United States Election Project, the November 2020 election has already seen an unprecedented early voter turnout. Yet, the ACLU points out that today “suppression efforts range from the seemingly unobstructive, like voter ID laws and cuts to early voting, to mass purges of voter rolls and systemic disenfranchisement. And long before election cycles even begin, legislators can redraw district lines that determine the weight of your vote. Certain communities are particularly susceptible to suppression and in some cases, outright targeted — people of color, students, the elderly, and people with disabilities.”
Some policies that restrict voting disproportionately affect African American and Latino voters. For example, there are fewer polling places in African American and Latino neighborhoods. One report identified that on average, African Americans wait 45% percent longer to vote than white voters and Latino voters wait 46% longer than white voters. Another recent study of voters in Florida found that African American and Latino voters were more than two times as likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected as white voters.
The American Bar Association reported, voter turnout for Native Americans is the lowest in the country, as compared to other groups due to a number of factors including mistrust in government, insufficient information or support as related to registering and voting, long travel distances to register or to vote, hostility toward Native Americans, and voter intimidation. The ABA also points to “isolating conditions such as language barriers, socioeconomic disparities, lack of access to transportation, lack of residential addresses, lack of access to mail, and the digital divide limit Native American political participation. Changes to voting processes further frustrate the ability of Native Americans to vote.”
The National Disability Rights Network reported that jurisdictions around the country have been closing polling places under the false pretense that those locations were not ADA compliant. Poll closures not only limit voting access to those with disabilities, but to all voters. The solution is not to close these polling places, but rather make them accessible to all, as mandated by federal law.
Voter ID laws adversely impact the older American vote. Older adults born in rural areas or during Jim Crow may have never gotten a birth certificate, a requirement for obtaining a government ID. Some may no longer drive or have the funds to travel somewhere to obtain a photo ID. Further, the ID costs money, which may pose a problem for low income seniors.
BIPOC older adults face additional obstacles to those of their white counterparts. In specific, many may often experience trauma stemming from voter suppression and intimidation and the cumulative effect of this systemic dismantling of political power.
Older survivors, too, face many barriers to casting their vote including the laws that disenfranchise many potential voters, such as voter ID requirements and state restrictions on voting for people with prior felony convictions. Some may not have a permanent address if they have left their abuser and are homeless or living in shelter. And of course, safety and privacy concerns are paramount.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated this election, elevating concerns about how individuals can safely take part in the electoral process. While some may feel uneasy about casting their vote in person because of coronavirus, others may be apprehensive about absentee voting due to the persistent yet debunked rhetoric that voting by mail is unsafe, ballot harvesting, and the limiting of the number of secure ballot drop-off boxes.
What Can You Do?
We’ve put together a short list of voting resources to help you know your voting rights and make a plan to safely vote. We encourage you to visit these important resources and share them with others.
American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) Know Your Voting Rights: https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/voting-rights/#someone-is-interfering-with-my-right-to-vote
Learn more about how to exercise your voting rights, resist voter intimidation efforts, and access disability-related accommodations and language assistance at the polls. For help at the polls, call the non-partisan Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
League of Women Voters: https://www.lwv.org/
The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan group that works to register voters, provide voters with election information through voter guides as well as candidate forums and debates.
National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center Voting Resources: https://ltcombudsman.org/issues/voting
Offers resources to help raise awareness about long-term care residents’ right to vote, information about facility requirements to support residents’ right to vote, and tips for ensuring voting access.
National Network to End Domestic Violence Voting and Survivor Privacy: https://www.techsafety.org/voter-registration-privacy
NNEDV offers this important overview so that survivors are fully aware of how their voter information is collected, used, shared, or sold. Make an informed decision about your privacy and safety when registering to vote or casting a ballot.
Natives Vote 2020: https://nativesvote2020.com/
IllumiNative partnered with the Native Organizers Alliance, and the Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado, to produce an extensive online resource that aims to eliminate barriers faced by Native Americans when voting. The site offers information on registering, voting in person, and voting by mail, in all relevant counties and Indian tribal lands in the U.S.
VoteRiders offers nonpartisan help in figuring out what ID and documents you need to vote and provides support with the practical, legal, and financial support to secure it.