Fighting the Voting Battles One Community at a Time

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | October 29, 2020, 1:02 pm EST
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We have all heard many times by now that this is a critically important and difficult election at a time the country and the world are facing multiple crises. For many of us, we hear exhortations to get out and vote, from President Obama and the former First Lady to celebrities great and small. I fully agree.

Here at UCS our team is working to help get out the vote through ScienceRising and working with partners in key states. But we are also learning from the science of elections just how hard it is for some of our fellow citizens to vote—which should be simple. Unfortunately, far too often, states have intentionally designed their election rules to make it difficult to participate. The suppression of Black voters, Indigenous voters, and other communities of color has long been a feature of the system.

The tactics aren’t subtle. Shorter voting hours, fewer voting places, poorer mail service, fewer drop boxes, long lines because of a slow process at the polls with few voting stations, identification rules, unfair signature verification, purged voter rolls. Political actors launch bad-faith lawsuits to make voting difficult and make fewer votes count. These communities are often the targets of misinformation or intimidation meant to deter their participation. Get the picture? Each of these steps is part of a system of suppression that disproportionately impacts low income voters, voters of color, those in the Black or Latino or Indigenous communities—by design. Despite the rights laid out in the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. And despite our self-image as the land of the free, the world’s greatest democracy.

This isn’t my just my opinion: it is amply demonstrated by two large bodies of evidence. The first is the science of elections, like the work of my colleague Prof. Michael Latner. And the second is the experience of people all around the country living and working in Black communities, Latinx communities, Indigenous, poor and other communities of color. That experience is real, widespread, well-documented, repeated, and going on today—just like the scientific analysis. It is DATA.

Take just one piece of Michael Latner’s analysis. He carefully modeled what would happen if there wasn’t such a disparity in resources, opportunity, targeted information by campaigns and the outright ease of voting between wealthier, whiter communities compared to poorer non-white communities. The output is expected voter turnout. And if the disparity is reduced, turnout goes way up in the poorer non-white communities. Put another way, turnout isn’t higher in wealthier whiter communities because people are more engaged or attentive to the election and “doing their civic duty”—it’s because the barriers are lower, the information is easier to come by and voting takes minutes not hours.

Graph showing relationship between racial/economic barriers and voting turnout

The legitimacy of a government depends on the consent of its citizens, so discriminatory barriers to participation are unacceptable in principle—but the problem with voter suppression isn’t only a moral principle: it matters to people’s lives. Latner’s research has shown a connection between discriminatory, restrictive voting systems and poor public health outcomes. When people can’t advocate for their own interests, it puts their health and safety in danger.

These are the very issues my friends at the Battle for Democracy Fund and Common Ground are fighting, on the front lines. Co-founders Alejandra Tres and Keisha Krum are community organizers. They work in and are of the communities that have to fight so hard just for the opportunity to vote. And they do it because, for all the calls to vote, someone needs to be helping people answer that call when the system is designed to make it ever more difficult. As those undemocratic walls are built to block voting, community organizers try to give every voter a boost to get over the walls.

And here at UCS, we add our voices and our science to the fight for the right to vote, and call for every vote to be counted. And no matter who wins this year, it’s imperative that we improve our voting systems to give everyone the chance to have their say.

Michael Fleshman/Flickr

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