“If an astronaut can vote from space, you can vote from your dorm.” While I’m certainly inspired by astronauts’ dedication to their civic duties, voting from my dorm turned out to be harder than such signs posted around campus made it out to be. In order for my absentee ballot to be counted in Arkansas, it needed to be sealed in three envelopes with a copy of my passport and I had to pay $2.75 in postage. In contrast, astronauts receive and send in their absentee ballots completely electronically.
This election has shown what we’ve already known: Voter suppression is alive and well across America, particularly in the South. This pandemic has exposed the flaws in our antiquated system, and many are revisiting long-standing questions on the continued legacy of voter suppression. It’s clear that our democracy fails to live up to its most basic tenet of giving every citizen a vote and a voice. Voting shouldn’t be a privilege; it’s a constitutional right. Similarly, getting to the ballot box shouldn’t be an obstacle course; it should be a stroll in the park.
Modern voter suppression takes many forms. In this election, we saw it manifest in the so-called “poll-watchers” that showed up across the country—in some cases, armed—to intimidate voters. In Texas, ballot drop off boxes were limited to one per county, and on a national scale, a lack of preparedness and expansion by the postmaster general meant voters had to send in their ballots over 10 days early to ensure arrival by Election Day. In addition to these logistical problems, the requirements voters must fulfill, such as voter ID laws, pose a significant barrier to voting. The cost of obtaining an ID, the documentation requirements, and the time needed to stand in line at the DMV have prevented 11% of U.S. citizens—more than 21 million Americans—from obtaining government-issued photo identification.
Mail-in voting was clearly the more popular and safer option amidst the pandemic. With absentee ballots being requested in large numbers, many people were voting by mail for the first time. Even after sealing my ballot in the three (yes, three!) envelopes required and printing out a copy of my passport, I then had to pay for postage. Although $2.75 isn’t a lot, the fact that people must pay to cast their votes at all is a modern poll tax, and lawsuits filed in Georgia by Black Voters Matter and other states plan to argue the unconstitutionality of this.
Voter suppression is a problem in general, but like many things in the United States, it disproportionately impacts minority groups living in the South. ACLU studies have found that across the country, counties with larger minority populations have fewer polling sites and poll workers per vote. One in 13 Black Americans are unable to vote due to disenfranchisement laws, and only 40% of polling places can fully accommodate people with disabilities. The reality is that the South has yet to shed the vestiges of the Jim Crow era, and these laws are yet another way to oppress minorities and maintain a racist power hierarchy.
Despite these challenges, Georgia’s flip to blue during this election served as an example of how progress can be made in the South—but not without hard work. The political views of Georgians didn’t magically change from 2016. In the last two years, 800,000 first-time voters were registered largely thanks to efforts by voting rights activist Stacy Abrams. We must work to continue this registration trend across the South and commit to voter enfranchisement. The long-term goals should be overturning laws that suppress the vote and replacing them with an empowering system modeled after other states like Oregon and Washington.
While the problem is particularly bad in the South, citizens all across the country face challenges to voting. The increase in voter turnout this year is something to celebrate, but we must recognize that our work isn’t done until every eligible American votes. We’re failing and we’ll continue to fail until we enact systematic change and live up to our most basic ideals: to be a government of the people, for the people, and by the people that leaves no voter behind.