Voter Suppression Is a Looming Threat in the 2020 Elections

The most politically effective strategy for 2020 is pushing for and implementing pro-voter policies to ensure the historically marginalized can make their voices heard.

[Photo: An older, Black voter using an adaptive walking device exits after casting her ballot at a polling place.]
Another form of voter suppression widely used in the 2018 midterm elections was voter intimidation—a tactic many in the United States associate more closely with the Jim Crow South or apartheid South Africa. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democratic candidates have begun to announce their bids for the 2020 nomination, inspiring heated discussions among the public about their credentials, positions, and the controversies surrounding them. But there’s something missing from these conversations. Assessing the merits of individual candidates is incredibly important, but we will never elect radical progressives or truly address oppression if our votes aren’t counted and our voices go unheard. If progressives don’t dedicate a significant amount of energy to fiercely mobilizing against voter suppression, they may have already lost.

Voter suppression is a systemic inequity that threatens to prevent a Democratic nominee from securing the presidency in 2020. And because voter suppression is a political weapon most often deployed against the most oppressed and marginalized voices, it’s a threat to justice and equity.

But our failure to sufficiently advocate for an end to voter suppression might doom us to more years of minority rule. When those in power fear being rendered powerless by the majority—who are often pushing for more progressive policies—they rely on tried and true weapons of domination, like voter suppression.

Voter suppression is a key tool implemented by oppressive, fascist governments. The result is minority rule, meaning that the wishes of the majority—which often includes some the most marginalized—go unfulfilled. Without voter registration reform and the elimination of voter suppression, we will slide deeper into fascism at an alarming rate. This needs to be the conversation that dominates our national political discourse.

In many ways, Donald Trump’s presidency has always been a dress rehearsal for minority rule, if not the full implementation of it. If that sounds hyperbolic to you, consider that if majority rule had prevailed, Trump wouldn’t have even secured the office, as he decisively lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Consider that one of his first bombastic acts was to announce the construction of a wall that 59 percent of people in the United States oppose. Consider that the president has implemented the infamous Muslim ban, a clearly discriminatory measure that faced enormous backlash from the public. And, every day since his inauguration, this administration has continued to test the boundaries of its power, boldly enacting and proposing undemocratic policies that most people in this country oppose.

Unaddressed voter suppression in 2020 could lead to at least four more years of feelings of political impotence for people from marginalized groups like me, who find ourselves faced with the prospect of having our fates in the hands of the “tyranny of the minority.” They are allowed to do this because our country has never addressed voter suppression and disenfranchisement, which runs rampant, particularly during high-stakes elections.

Take the 2018 midterm election: Existing oppressive voting policies and the desire to maintain control showed that many were willing to cross boundaries and discriminate against marginalized groups.

The U.S. Supreme Court in October 2018 upheld North Dakota’s strict voter ID law requiring voters to have a state ID with a current street address, a policy previously blocked because it was deemed discriminatory. This measure, according to the Center for American Progress, stood to effectively bar tens of thousands of people from voting—including an estimated 5,000 Native Americans who lacked residential addresses and received their mail via P.O. boxes.

Brian Kemp, who refused to resign as Georgia’s secretary of state during his successful run for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, a Black woman, “purged” almost 1.5 million people from the rolls of eligible voters between the 2012 and 2016 elections. The policy disproportionately affected Black voters. These and other voter suppression tactics (like closing polling locations in majority-Black areas) seemed to ensure his win.

Voters in states including Michigan, Alabama, and Florida were stymied by strict voter ID laws or election officials discarding absentee ballots for no reason.

Another form of voter suppression widely used in the 2018 midterm elections was voter intimidation—a tactic many in the United States associate more closely with the Jim Crow South or apartheid South Africa. In the months leading up to the election, the white supremacist website the Road to Power sent racist robocalls to Florida and Georgia residents. Anti-Semitic flyers were sent to voters in Alaska, North Carolina, California, and Pennsylvania.

Trump himself brazenly tweeted just one day before the election, “Law Enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any ILLEGAL VOTING which may take place in Tuesday’s Election (or Early Voting). Anyone caught will be subject to the Maximum Criminal Penalties allowed by law. Thank you.” Such threatening behavior is simply unacceptable for a sitting president, and it demonstrates a chilling willingness to use the power of his office to ensure favorable outcomes for his agenda, no matter the cost.

With so much political power at stake, desperate and corrupt politicians will only up the ante in 2020.

After the midterms illuminated the threat of voter suppression, some have sought to address the issue.

Democrats in January introduced the For The People Act, which aims to reform elections and combat voter suppression, in the U.S. House of Representatives. But this most likely will not pass the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, nor will it win the approval of Trump. On Tuesday, House Democrats rolled out the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill that will prevent states with a history of widespread voter suppression and discrimination from changing their voting laws without approval from the Department of Justice.

After her loss to Kemp, Stacey Abrams has been outspoken about the threat of voter suppression, even starting a pro-voter advocacy group, Fair Fight Action.

The National Voter Interstate Compact aims to elect the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, not the electoral vote. The bill would award electoral votes to whoever won the popular vote. It’s supported by many Democrats, including Colorado state legislators who recently sent the bill to newly elected Gov. Jared Polis (D) for approval. But although the plan already has the support of 11 states and the District of Columbia, it may not receive the 270 electoral college votes it needs to take effect.

These efforts aren’t likely to pass or to change anything before the 2020 election, especially if we are not more vocal about the need to address voter suppression. Citizens should be actively organizing around this issue. More ballot measures like the one in Florida—which afforded 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people the right to vote—need to be introduced and fought for. Civil rights organizations need to be aggressively organizing voter registration and transportation to the polls on election day in 2020.

We need to make this our political priority.

Focusing on which Democratic candidates should win the nomination is good. But the most politically effective strategy is pushing for and implementing pro-voter policies that will ensure the historically marginalized will be able to make their voices heard as equal parts of the U.S. electorate. Voter suppression anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere.

We boast about our democracy so often, and how the right to vote is an inviolate part of it. But we have never lived in a nation where all our citizens had a voice. Authoritarianism and illiberalism are not creeping up on us, they are already here.

The focus on merely getting Trump out of office, instead of aggressively attacking the systemic inequities that placed him there, is counter-productive.