The Department of Justice has just dealt a major blow to voting rights in the United States with the news that it won't be dispatching election monitors to some of the most vulnerable states in November. In a contentious election year where voter suppression is likely to be a recurring theme across the country, this is extremely bad news — because instead of relying on federal observers, we're going to be forced to count on voters themselves enforcing their rights.
If election monitors sound like something the UN dispatches to developing democracies, it's not just nations like Iraq that need monitoring to ensure that everyone has a fair chance at the vote. Systemic inequality and a repeated pattern of voter suppression in the United States demonstrates that we can't get it together when it comes to protecting the "one person, one vote" principle that's supposed to be a cornerstone of American life.
We can blame 2013's Shelby County v Holder for this particular DOJ decision. The agency believes that the Supreme Court's move, which invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, limits the amount of oversight it can conduct during elections. Historically, the agency could send federal election observers to any states that it felt merited closer monitoring as a result of concerns about restrictions on voting rights. Now, it can only dispatch them in the event of a federal court ruling, and just five states have such rulings outstanding: California, Alabama, Louisiana, Alaska, and New York.
Voter suppression tactics like voter ID laws, moving or closing polling places, questionable purges of the rolls, proof of citizenship requirements, and extremely early voter registration deadlines are in play across the country. Shelby actually made that easier, as the DOJ no longer has the authority to require so-called "preclearance" states to present proposed election-related legislation for approval.
States with a history of voter suppression rejoiced with the Shelby ruling, which made it possible for them to double down on practices that disenfranchise people of color, low-income people, and disabled voters, many of whom lack the documentation required to meet new polling place standards. Voting rights activists had just the opposite response, and some of their worst fears are already being realized.
During primaries this year, problems with voting were reported across the country. In low-income, Latinx-dominated communities in Arizona, there were no polling places. In Wisconsin, voter ID laws and long lines discouraged people who were planning to cast ballots. Blind voters have repeatedly struggled with machines that don't work and polling place workers who can't help them. In New York, a very suspicious voter purge disenfranchised entirely eligible voters. In Texas, poll workers refused provisional ballots to voters who had difficulty meeting ID requirements.
Voter suppression is often made out to be a problem exclusive of the South, and of the Black community. This isn't the case, and it's never been the case. The practice targets all people of color, along with low-income and disabled people of all races, and it's prevalent across the United States. Members of the Latinx community in New York were hit just as hard as blind voters in California, right alongside people in Black communities in Southern states. The common attitude among Northerners that only the South has racial problems is palpably untrue — and a deft way to avoid addressing systemic racism in communities from Oakland to New York City.
It is a practice calculated to disenfranchise those who are least able to protect themselves, and those who have a long history of being unable to vote. People often say that voter equality was reached in 1920 with the 19th Amendment, but they're wrong. The voting rights of many people of color weren't secured until the 1970s, disabled people weren't extended more comprehensive voting protections until the 1990s, and some members of the military struggled to vote well into the 2000s. Some people are still unable to vote: Felons in many states, and people under guardianship or conservatorship. And, of course, all those below voting age — teen activists are lobbying to lower or abolish the voting age, arguing that they don't get a direct say in policies that will affect their generation for decades to come.
So what does this mean for November? The DOJ has pledged to offer as much oversight as it can, but Election Protection will likely be working overtime — just as it was during the primaries — and in fact the Lawyer's Committee, which operates the program, intends to expand its scope as much as possible. But Election Protection cannot go inside polling places, and neither can any other voting rights groups, partisan and nonpartisan alike, including Election Justice and party committees.
For Election Protection's efforts to be effective, they're counting on voters, and not all voters know their rights or are aware of what to do to enforce them. Many are counting on just that, hoping that voters will be intimidated by onerous restrictions at the polls, or uninterested in advocating for each other when they spot voter suppression.
There are a lot of resources to turn to if people encounter voter suppression, but they're useless if people don't know about them, or aren't willing to use them to defend each other, not just themselves. Defending voting rights includes educating each other about our options, and advocating for voters when they encounter challenges. Look up the laws in your state and get familiar with the requirements for voting, and make sure to disseminate that information. Check your voter registration to confirm it's current and accurate. Consider phonebanking or canvassing — you can be nonpartisan if you're not interested in supporting any specific campaigns. You can also apply to be a pollworker; play a direct role in ensuring that people in your community are able to vote.
It sounds dorky, but consider forming an election club — mine has dozens of members and growing, and we're helping each other out by collectively researching and discussing the propositions on the California ballot along with some local candidates. At the same time, we're also making sure that everyone in the club is registered, knows how to handle voter suppression, and is spreading that information to friends.
If the DOJ won't protect us, we have to look out for ourselves, and the best way to do that is to look out for each other.
Photo: Andrew Mager/Creative Commons