I had a lot of luck when I first repatriated after six years of living overseas. One of the most serendipitous meetings occurred when I used to ferry my daughter to preschool on the bus from our neighborhood to Chinatown, when I often spoke with another mother named Tara. She gave me all sorts of raising-kids-in-the city tips, but one of the first things she ever told me, was that I’d have to register with a party in order to vote in Pennsylvania’s local and primary elections. If I registered to vote as an Independent, I’d only be eligible to vote in the November elections.
This incensed me of course. As an independent, there’s nothing more I value than MY INDEPENDENCE — other than maybe not being tied to a binary political party and maybe privacy about who I’m voting for. UGH.
But those were the rules, and I was going to play by them — sort of. It might be the case that when changing addresses over the years that I’ve switched back to Independent knowing that I hit the timing just right to still be able to vote in the primaries. Bloody rebel blood in my body.
BUT — I will never forget what I learned on that SEPTA bus from my neighbor — vital information about a voter restriction I would not have known about otherwise. As a repatriating single mother, recently divorced, commuting to another state to work while my kiddo was in preschool, learning my way around a brand-new-to-me city AND navigating family court and dealing with reverse culture shock — seeking out voter registration information in the dead of winter for a spring primary wasn’t the first thing on my list of things to do.
I am always grateful to Tara….especially since I learned that Pennsylvania comes in around….oh 45th out of 50 in Election Integrity* (see below, we’ve moved up). Like I said, I was lucky.
But that story emphasizes the issue that gets my cackles up every time I hear it — “Just vote.” People say it as if it’s the easiest thing in the world to do — but it’s not.
There is no Constitutional right to vote. Shocking, I know. So the white, male property owners who put George Washington into the President’s House in Philadelphia were just six percent of the U.S. population. Right?
Granted, there have been amendments since 1787 that have the intention of enfranchising the remainder of the population — the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the 19th, 24th and 26th Amendments — not to mention the monumental Voter Rights Act signed by LBJ just months after Bloody Sunday, the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
Why am I giving you a history lesson? Because, well…
Even though there seems to be an upswing in the number of people who recognize the depth and breadth of racial injustice and social inequities in our country, the messaging I’m seeing around voting hints that we all don’t really get it yet. (For another, more official history of legal impediments to voting, read this Vox article.)
In short: It takes a lot more than a t-shirt to turn out the vote. I read a lot of “just vote” and “people want to protest, but they don’t want to vote.” When the truth is, our country makes it really difficult for the average citizen to actually cast a ballot that counts. If you’ve been paying attention for the past seven years or so — you are well aware that voter suppression is alive and well — and not just for people of color. Keep in mind that every law that keeps black and brown people down, also has the consequence (intended or un-) of oppressing poor white and rural citizens as well. Voter Suppression is real.
SO. Here are 10 (of many) reasons why voting isn’t as easy as saying it, and 12 things you can do to actually get the vote out, and help ensure it counts.
10 Obstacles To Voting & Having A Ballot Count (AKA Voter Suppression Tactics)
1. Election Day Is Not A National Holiday
This one’s important. Unless and until all citizens can be guaranteed an opportunity to vote on election day, getting to the polls in the 12 hours that they’re open will be a challenge. However, time off work to vote is determined by state and/or employer. And generally, the types of jobs with allowances for voting on election day are inherently the types where it’s easier to flex one’s workload or rearrange one’s schedule to do so. Likely not as easy for shift workers, who even if they are able to change or switch shifts, may still have to deal with public transportation to their polling place and/or to work — unless both are near home….Not to mention juggling childcare pick-up and drop-off, jury duty in some states, or other unforeseen complications. If it comes down to keeping a job (or jobS), there are many who will choose maintaining their income over voting — especially if they’re lukewarm on the candidate, and early voting or absentee ballots are not an easy option. While some argue the solution is a national holiday, others argue that this won’t solve the issue of state laws and private employers guidelines for employees (read non-partisan, pro-con arguments illustrating this phenomenon here.)
2. Election Integrity
The Election Integrity Project is an extremely important and very dense analysis of voting and electoral procedures state-by-state (they also have other projects in other countries and continents now). It conveys how many hindrances there are to actually voting and having it count across the country. Undertaken by professors at Harvard and Stanford, they rank all 50 states on 11 stages in the electoral process — ranging from how easy it is to register, if early voting is offered and how strict absentee ballot rules are, to the spread of disinformation and how easy it is for candidates to run. Did you know that closed primaries — not allowing independents to vote in primaries unless they’re with a registered party — are a form of voter suppression? The easier-to-distill Vox article is here. When I first stumbled on the Election Integrity project in 2016 — our state, Pennsylvania, ranked 45th in the country. It won’t surprise you that many states that fall lower on election integrity, tend to have closer elections (ahem, hello PA, MI & WI) We’ve moved up to 37th, FWIW. What that means is — it’s probably worth looking into where your state stands, what the obstacles to voting are there, and coming to grips with the fact that it may not be so easy to “just vote”.
Although legal, gerrymandering is extremely problematic. I remember learning about it in college, while I lived in the controversial “I-85” district (NC’s 12th congressional district). While I was an out-of-state student who couldn’t vote in North Carolina at the time (hello, election integrity), it wouldn’t have mattered if I did. The district basically crossed the state along Interstate 85, where most of the state’s urban areas existed, essentially “packing” democrats into one district. The Guardian captures it magnificently here. But gerrymandering got a lot darker after the Obama presidency and the 2010 census. You can listen to the Fresh Air interview about the book Ratf**ked by David Daley here. Essentially, (and this is where things do get a little partisan, but we all have something to learn) it goes into the depth, detail, and “surgical precision” with which the Republican operatives like Karl Rove covertly executed Project REDMAP, a gerrymandering scheme that results in districts like Pennsylvania’s 7th, surrounding Philadelphia — where the shape looks like Goofy is kicking Donald Duck in the butt. The 5-minute clip with Jordan Klepper from The Opposition is probably funnier, and there’s an update on Planet Money if you want the 26-minute version. BTW, Project REDMAP is brought to us by the same “genius” who architected ending the 2020 census early and omitting unauthorized immigrants from the count.
UGH. I call this decision “Holder,” but everyone else correctly refers to it as Shelby County. In short, the 2013 Supreme Court decision undoes the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the one that folks like John Lewis almost lost their lives to secure. Basically, the 1965 Voting Right Acts included protections ensuring that states that historically worked to disadvantage voters with poll taxes, literacy tests and such, would need to get federal permission before implementing new voter laws (or restrictions as they often play out). In fact, 2016 was the first election in 50 years without the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. If you’re
nerdy bookish, this Vox interview with Carol Anderson explains this really well. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, voter restrictions began rolling in around 2010 (with the census) intensified after the Shelby County decision, increased after 2016 and will continue likely until Election Day in November. Here’s what restrictions were in place at this time at 2016.
5. Misinformation & Disinformation
If there’s anyone who loves democracy more than I do (ha!) it’s New York Times Magazine writer Emily Bazelon. This week’s Fresh Air interview with Bazelon highlights one of many ways “free speech” and misinformation are commingling these days, in ways that harm not only our democracy, but also voter trust. Between the devastating closure of local newspapers over the years, to the now highly visible digital divide, people lack reliable information about not only their regions, but also national issues. Add on social media, false news on apps and an alarming amount of disinformation combined with unethical algorithms, and getting accurate information about voting in one’s area – especially in an era of heightened loneliness, mistrust in institutions and intentional interference from foreign agencies — and discerning how, when and where to vote (let alone who to vote for) could become a full-on mission impossible. For a reminder of reliable news sources to refer to from now until the election is decided, check out this interactive graphic with ratings of media bias. The smarts behind it is here. The ProPublica guide to spotting misinformation and disinformation is here.
6. Crazy Absentee Ballot Laws
What do you know?…Absentee ballots and mail-in ballots aren’t the easiest aspect of voting either. Naked ballots, witness signatures…for some states residents need to send a copy of their driver’s license in order to vote, while others need their ballots notarized. Since the COVID pandemic has lead to an increase in desire — and public health recommendations for — absentee and mail-in voting, laws restricting those actions have proliferated, as well as lawsuits. Not only are there tricky minor impediments to accurately casting a mail-in or absentee ballot, but according to an audit, ballots for 43 states are are inaccessible for people with disabilities, and places like Alabama have gone further by outlawing curbside voting. For a quick idea of how easily any of these absentee ballots could be rejected, check out this NYT slideshow — super-useful and quick (at least on mobile). When I lived overseas, it was super-easy to get my absentee ballot and send it back because the U.S. Embassy was on it, and so was the American school where I taught. If this is a little depressing, there is some good news, in that some states and agencies are rushing to ensure there’s a vote curing process to help voters fix any flubbed ballots. Fingers crossed.
7. Purging Voter Rolls
From Ohio to Wisconsin to Florida to New York, the practice of “cleaning” up voter rolls — or purging rolls — is particularly fraught and has become a partisan issue. For instance, Ohio has has a troubling recent history of purging rolls that has resulted in issues like one in six voters being removed by mistake, and one of the reasons for being purged is if you hadn’t voted in six years — so all it takes it skipping one presidential election in Ohio for that restriction to kick in. Wisconsin is currently in court over removing voters who might have moved, and that’s further controversial because it appears to target voters in certain areas (that align with political party). And in 2016, over 100,000 Brooklynites were illegally purged from New York’s voter rolls. And folks — these are just a few examples. This is happening all over the country. I heard a man on the radio a few weeks ago who hasn’t voted since 1976 but is voting in this election…imagine how many more people like him, who maybe haven’t sat out voting for the last 40-odd years, just maybe a national election or two here and there, who may not even be in the system anymore? This further compounded by the fact that receiving notification to avoid being purged relies on a postal system in jeopardy (and a timely response), and checking your voter registration often relies on access to the Internet (and a timely response).
8. Distrust Of The System
Suffice it to say, a system that historically works against citizens, is less likely to be trusted by said citizens. I’ll never forget June 8, 2008. It was the first day of the entire school year that my entire first period class — a beautiful spectrum of black, brown, DACA, legal immigrant and LBGTQ children — stood up to say the Pledge of Allegiance. We were North Carolina, a state crucial for the Obama presidency in the May 3 primary, and again during the November election — we were gray for two days while the absentee ballots from overseas — including mine; I’d voted from Dubai — were counted to determine the presidential outcome. Many of my students grew up in households deeply distrustful of the government. Not only were many of their parents working multiple jobs and facing logistical challenges to voting, but they were also well aware of voter suppression of their ancestors. As some article I found but since lost recently acknowledges, we should be saying “one voter, one vote,” not “one person, one vote” because that’s what we have right now. Not every person is guaranteed the ability to vote — that’s the purpose behind restrictive voter laws – and when such pointed discrimination is in play, the question may be less about whether I have time to vote, and more about — is it worth it to waste my time voting? For a people who have been legally enslaved by the government, experimented upon by medical institutions and universities, sterilized and disproportionally imprisoned and killed….trust in “the state” and its “systems” may be understandably low.
9. Voter Confusion
News articles about changes to polling places and drop box regulations are coming at a fast-and-furious pace — even I find it dizzying. Some states, like Ohio and Texas (dropping in election integrity from 37th to 45th from 2016 to 2018) have even tried to restrict the number of drop boxes for mail-in ballots to one per county — regardless of county size. Note: Harris County Texas is the 3rd most populous in the country. California Republicans have come under fire for setting up unauthorized drop boxes and even noting them as “official”. Note that these are not set up by the office of elections and it’s unclear if they legally count as ballot harvesting or ballot collection. They are clearly confusing for voters, and the legality and process for how they might be handled appears super-messy (understatement). Add on to that states and counties that close polling places, especially those in rural places, in between elections — hello, Georgia — just finding out where to drop a ballot or where to vote becomes another hurdle to submitting a vote and having it counted.
10. The 14th Amendment
The 14th Amendment is a tricky beast, at best. With its five sections, the 14th Amendment provides for birthright citizenship, apportionment (re: the census & seats in congress), the Due Process Clause (provides protection from interference of the state, similar the 5th Amendment, which provides it from the federal government — includes things like 1st Amendment rights, in addition to & more controversially “unenumerated rights” such as the right to marry and use contraception), the Equal Protection Clause (against discrimination by race, but offers plenty of legal debate regarding other forms of discrimination and advancement), and a few other issues, most of which are direct outcomes of the Civil War. In theory, it protects against voter discrimination, but as this WAPO article points out, that idea was “added” by the Warren Court, and is not an original part of the Constitution. The issue with birthright citizenship in relation to voting (lawyers, correct me in the comments if I’m wrong) is that it provides for certain “civil rights” of citizens, but does not address the subcategory of (perceived) “political rights” — and at the time, citizenship rights did not automatically confer upon the people “political rights”, which controversially, includes voting. This is one small piece of the puzzle as to why voting rights need to continually be fought for. With the 2013 Shelby County decision, the Supreme Court effectively turned back the clock on advances in voting rights. In her famous dissent, RBG said “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” HOWEVER, this Politico article offers up a solution already embedded in the 14th Amendment, Section 2: “states that infringe the vote must lose representation in Congress.” The question is — both theoretically and pragmatically — who’s going to demand that happens?
12 Actions You Can Take To Increase Voter Turnout
1. Vote Now
Seriously, vote as soon as you can and get out of the way. Long lines at the polls are a sign of voter suppression, as well as an excuse to prevent people from voting by closing the polls. Bustle has a cute, simple and handy guide to voting here. Vox has a “realist’s guide to voting — by mail or in person — this election season,” and ProPublica’s Electionland site has this Pandemic Guide To Making Sure Your Vote Counts.
2. Know Your State’s Voter Laws
…(no matter how nuanced they are): Naked ballots? Absentee ballot witnesses? There are all sorts of shenanigans that make voting a little less straightforward, so it’s important to not only know the requirements for voting in your state (this interactive AP tool is pretty cool), but to also keep track of the lawsuits as they’re decided between now and Election Day. With just a few
weeks days left until Election Day, voter registration laws, mail-in ballots, and other election laws keep changing. Over 300 election cases arose as a result of the pandemic, and at least around 40 are still in play as of three weeks before the election. The bookish can check out the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, or to just stay up-to-date, follow the Associated Press for updates as cases are resolved. The ACLU has a handy guide right here of lawsuits they’re involved in to expand voter access, and the AP has an update of cases still in play as of now (Friday) here.
3. Sign Up To Be A Nonpartisan Election Suppression Monitor
Volunteer opportunities range from “…monitoring polling places (from your vehicle, or with proper personal safety equipment), watchdogging social media for disinformation, or reaching out to voters to make sure they know their rights. You’ll connect voters with trained legal professionals who can help them navigate the voting process and cast their ballots safely and securely.” You can also share the nationwide, nonpartisan Election Protection hotline numbers via social media, available at the same link. *If you’re an attorney, law student, paralegal, or other legal professional, use this link. (Thanks, Reader Shira!) You can also sign up to be an Election Defender, which combines a host of election protection strategies into their training from providing PPE to de-escalating intimidation (full disclosure, this one is supported by the Movement For Black Lives ).
4. Triple Your Vote
The idea is simple: voter turnout greatly increases when friends remind friends to vote. You can pledge to contact 3 friends when you vote to remind them to also, or you can hang out in a legal location near your local polling place and remind other voters to do so as they’re exiting (while wearing PPE and staying physically distant). Read about the research here, sign the pledge for yourself here, download the VoteWithMe app here, or follow and share on Twitter here.
5. Be A “Good” Sister Wife
Have a friend or neighbor with multiple jobs? One who’s on jury duty on Election Day? One with too many kids to drag to the polls? One who has a commute long enough to make both working and getting to the polls and caring for their kids a nightmare at just the thought? A friend or neighbor or colleague who has any obstacle that will make it difficult for her (or her partner) to vote? HELP HER OUT. If she’s in your pod, make dinner for her family. If she’s not in your pod, take her kids out to the park or have them over to play in the yard while she fills out her mail-in ballot (in peace). You get the picture — give a helping (physically distanced) hand to someone who will need it just so that they can vote.
6. Normalize Voting
This includes everything from wearing cute voter tees to using social media to get the word out. Talk about voting as if everyone is doing it and it’s the cool thing to do. When our Cute Vote Tees (That Also Give Back) comments got contentious, Reader Amanda said “I’m a social scientist and am familiar with research showing that social pressure (ie knowing that your friends are voting or that others will know if you’re voting) leads to an increase in voter turnout. The effect is small, but it is there. This is the theory [behind] things like Postcards to Swing States. This t-shirt should in theory work the same way, though I don’t know of research looking at t-shirts specifically. That is, if others see you wearing a t-shirt like this, it contributes to the idea that voting is a social norm.” Her comment is underscored here by Psychology Today. Like wearing a vote t-shirt, we can use our social media channels to get the word out. Remind friends, family and followers of upcoming deadlines, updates to voter legislation, changes in polling places, where they can drop off their ballots, how many days until election day, etc., Keep the vote forefront of mind. With all the misinformation, disinformation and voter intimidation happening IRL, huge voter turnout and a landslide for the winner can also help preserve our democracy and ensure the peaceful transfer of power.
7. Register With The League of Women Voters
Several of our readers noted in the Facebook Insiders group that they’re volunteering with the League of Women Voters. Reader Christine noted her chapter made the Chicago Tribune (raised hands emoji), and Reader Yasmin is volunteering to be a poll observer through the League as well. The primary mission of the League is to expand voter access, but if you sign up to take action for news and alerts, it’s likely there are still opportunities to engage in before Election Day.
8. Send Postcards & Letters
This one’s tricky because a lot of postcard projects are local and/or partisan. Reader Shira has been writing letters with Vote Forward. Their “Big Push” actually happened last weekend, but it may be a good place to keep your eye out for other opportunities. From StandUp America: “Studies have shown that writing letters to voters increases their likelihood of voting. A voter is more likely to turn out to vote if they receive a personalized message from another voter, and according to the Analyst Institute, letters are 3-4 times more effective at turning out voters than handwritten postcards.” Groups like Indivisible and PostCards to Swing States also engage in writing.
9. Contribute To VoteSafe Or Distribute PPE
The pandemic offers a few new ways to help people vote safely by providing PPE. I felt so lucky to find this little tidbit in my email last night. Color Of Change, an activist group, is offering volunteers the opportunity to help black families vote by hosting PPE distribution sessions where they will distribute masks, hand sanitizer and gloves, as well as help voters make an in-person voting plan. Sign up here. Another opportunity that looks like it’s more geared toward donations, is Gear Up To Vote Safe. “RESOLVE, VoteSafe, and Mission for Masks have joined forces to launch Gear Up to VoteSafe, a new non-partisan initiative to get personal protective equipment (PPE) into the hands of election officials, poll workers, and volunteers.” You can donate money here, and there are options to purchase PPE for poll workers or to share the initiative here.
10. Text Voters With “When We All Vote” & Headcount
Sign up with the nonpartisan, non-profit When We All Vote to safely text (like phone banking) eligible voters. Training and instructions can all be found here, and you’re not using your own phone number. It seems like a simple, easy act you can take from home. Another initiative that Reader Lisa on Facebook Insiders told us about is texting voters and other non-partisan volunteer opportunities through Headcount.org.
11. Feed The People At The Polls
Reader Amanda shared these two with us on the Facebook Insiders group: Pizza To The Polls and Chefs For The Polls. Both are pretty much what they sound like. Pizza To The Polls is a non-partisan organization that delivers food to people standing in long lines to vote. Report long lines here, donate money here and see how else you can help at the bottom of this page. You’ve likely heard about good things Chef José Andrés has been up to, and Chefs For The Polls is another one of his World Central Kitchen projects. Sign up to help Chefs For The Polls here or donate here.
12. Donate To Nonprofit Vote
Reader Elizabeth shared a cool nonprofit, non-partisan initiative that provides resources and trainings for nonprofit organizations, (including soup kitchens, emergency health clinics and homeless shelters,) to promote voter registration and citizenship engagement. They have a TON of resources and ways to get involved, but one of the quickest ways to do so at this point is to donate. It’s worth browsing the site to see what else you can do, if you’re so inclined.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, which I wouldn’t blame you if you are, you’re aware we have a shortage of poll workers due to the pandemic. If you are young and/or not at high-risk of complications with COVID, this might be your jam. Sign up here with the U.S. Election Commission or here at Power the Polls.
OK, Friends — That’s all the lecturing from me for now. Goose and I dropped off my ballot (in its Secrecy envelope, not naked, in the main envelope, signed the same way I sign my driver’s license) at City Hall on Thursday. She had a dental appointment nearby, and when we walked out I was feeling incredibly passionate about our democracy, kind of striding in my tall boots, with tears in my eyes, feeling some kind of way. My ancestors converged on this continent from roughly 14 different countries & regions in the 17th and 18th centuries before these States were United, and some before said states were conceived. I’ve identified at least five ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War on my mother’s side of the family alone, in addition to ancestors and relatives who’ve served in every war through Korea, and/or served in the military beyond the Viet Nam war years. And for roughly half of this country’s lifetime, most of my ancestors weren’t even considered citizens. As much as I try to run away or am told to go back to where I came from, or embrace my expat and international ways, this is still my home country, and I still believe in the aspirational idea of it.
So for all the people who’ve fought and stood up for democratic ideals, for all the women and children and men who’ve marched and fought and lost their lives to expand the right to vote in the United States, and for all the people doing their part to preserve the idea of America the Free, let’s fucking do this. In this year when the nation lost both John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, LET’S ALL VOTE.
Thanks to all our Facebook Insiders who helped me out by sharing what they’re been doing to help turnout out the vote for Election 2020. If I didn’t include your actions here, or you have more to share, please add those to the comments.
PS: I was reminded by our friend J to include a few phone numbers to save now: To report election suppression, voter intimidation or problems at the polls, call these numbers:
(English): 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683);
Spanish/English: 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (1-888-839-8682);
Asian Languages/English: 1-888-API-VOTE (1-888-274-8683);
Arabic/English: 1-844-YallaUS (1-844-925-5287)
PPS: FYI, in the most recent episode of Full Frontal, Samantha Bee does a great job of rehashing the voter suppression we’re seeing rn (although not unbiased) including everything from those crazy mail-in ballot rules to interviewing previous political candidates who actually lost by one vote. If you’re looking for something lighter after reading this though — hit up Emily’s easy-to-make Halloween treats 🙂
AND….this one’s for the pinners!