The frontlines of voter suppression in the US

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If you had to pick a single example of the recent history of voter suppression in the United States, there are few better examples than Prairie View A&M University. Located in Waller County, Prairie View A&M is the largest and oldest of the HBCUs — Historically Black Colleges and Universities — in the state of Texas. The majority of its 9500 students are black. So too is the population of the namesake city, with African Americans making up around 93.5 per cent of its 6000 residents.

Symbolic comparison of the difficulties faced by poor black Americans and wealthier white Americans in voting. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonBut the rest of Waller County is majority white. Even including the population of Prairie View, the county overall is almost 58 per cent white, and the majority of the white population votes Republican. The young, majority-black student body at Prairie View A&M, on the other hand, are a solidly Democratic constituency.

When voters between the age of 18 and 21 became eligible to vote after the 26th Amendment passed in 1971, conservative election officials in Waller County anticipated a significant shift in the local voting population. Young black students living on campus would be able to cast their votes in the thousands. To attempt to prevent this, the country refused for years to recognise students as residents of the county for voting purposes.

Students challenged the decision, and the case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The students won, and their right to register and vote where they lived on campus was upheld. Since 1979, students across the United States have had their right to register to vote at their college address recognised. But the county had no obligation to make it easy for the students to vote: despite housing almost a fifth of the county's population, there was no voting booth on campus at Prairie View A&M until 2013.

In a year when voter suppression has become a key tactic for Republicans' defense of their majorities in the house and senate, Prairie View is once again a perfect microcosm for voter suppression in the United States. Local officials have made it difficult for students to register, and restricted their opportunities to vote.

Preventing registration

The first major hurdle Prairie View students faced to vote this year was having their registration honoured at the on-campus voting booth. Like many American residential universities, Prairie View doesn't have individual postal addresses for students. So, in 2016, the university and the county reached an agreement that students could register using either 100 or 700 University Drive as their address. Students followed these instructions, only to discover that anyone registered to the 700 University Drive address would not be able to vote on campus: that address has been assigned to a precinct outside the university (unlike Australian federal elections, in many US states voters must vote in their local precinct).

The discrepancy was only identified two weeks before registrations closed. After campaigns (which included a campaign staffer being arrested after identifying himself), in a story that demonstrates just how partisan election administration can be, a remedy has been agreed upon, but it still involves students who registered at 700 University Drive to fill out further paperwork on election day, which could have a depressive affect on turnout.

 

"Compounding the disproportionate power of voters from small, rural states in the Electoral College and the senate, voter suppression is one of the ways a political party supported by a minority of Americans can retain power."

 

Making registering to vote difficult, and challenging registrations, are two of the most common and effective methods of voter disenfranchisement, and are an effective way to target minorities. In Georgia, the Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is responsible for administering an election where he also appears on the ballot in the governor's race, has implemented an 'exact match' rule, where registrations are suspended where voter registrations don't perfectly match records on file from the Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration. An additional space, a spelling mistake, a dropped hyphen: any of these can result in voters being suspended from the voting roles. 53,000 applications have been flagged for suspension, and 70 per cent of those are from black Georgians, despite making up only a third of the population of the state.

A similarly targeted tactic in North Dakota has make registration difficult for many of the state's Native population. Under a new law that became effective on 9 October, in order to vote, North Dakotans must produce identification that shows their name, birth date and residential address. Many of those who live on Native American reservations don't have a street address, and instead use a PO box. That will not be permitted under the new law.

With many races expected to come down to just a few thousand votes or fewer, voters showing up on election day only to discover they are not able to vote has the potential to swing elections.

Making voting difficult

The other effective way to depress turnout in a targeted way is to make voting difficult. Disparities in the ease of voting for different populations demonstrate deliberate and targeted attempts to turn people off voting. And once again, students at Prairie View A&M are fighting for their equal access to vote.

The number and location of polling places, the facilities themselves, availability of early and postal voting, staffing levels and opening hours work together to help determine voting access. These facilities vary wildly both across the United States and within congressional districts. In Oregon, elections take place entirely by postal ballot. Most states have a combination of some early and/or postal voting and election-day voting. Some states, however, only allow voting on election day, which is a Tuesday.

Prairie View students are fighting for their physical access to the polls too. Students at the college sued Waller County over discrepancies between access to polling sites on campus and in the nearby city of Waller. Residents of Waller, which has a majority white population and half of the eligible voting-age population of Prairie View, have access to two early voting sites in the first week of voting, both open on Saturday. Prairie View student, however, will only have access to voting sites on campus in the second week of voting, and neither will be open on Saturday. The disparate access to voting between the two populations is apparent.

Similar tactics have been in place across the United States. Research by MIT shows there is a significant gap in average waiting time to vote based on race. Smaller, more poorly resources voting booths are disproportionately located in majority-black parts of the country. In Georgia, a recent plan proposed closing seven of nine booths in the majority-black Randolph county. After national outcry, the election board voted the proposal down.

Compounding the disproportionate power of voters from small, rural states in the Electoral College and the senate, voter suppression is one of the ways a political party supported by a minority of Americans can retain power. While Australian democracy has its significant flaws, we should be grateful for non-partisan voting administration. But even within our non-partisan elections, we should remain vigilant: we need to consider how difficult it is for the vulnerable among us to vote.

 

 

Erin RileyErin Riley is a sports writer and historian from Sydney. Her writing is focused on understanding the role sport and its institutions play in Australian life.

Topic tags: Erin Riley, US midterms, voter suppression

 

 

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Existing comments

Just horrifying. At the very least, though, it will stop me whingeing about having to vote as I stand in line at the polling booth. At best it will keep our eyes open to the difficulties suffered by some minorities in exercising their vote in Australia, as Erin says.
Joan Seymour | 05 November 2018


"Land of the free"? Gee I am glad I don't live in the States. We may have our problems here but they pale into insignificance when compare to the U.S.A.
Gavin O'Brien | 05 November 2018


And this mob, self-appointed as the champion and protector of democracy in this world, go to war killing thousands under the banner of promoting and preserving the American brand of democracy. What an ignorant, laughable delusion - like so much else that is the USA.
john frawley | 06 November 2018


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