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August 02, 2020

Frontliners battle voter suppression as November election approaches

With Americans being told to stay at home because of the pandemic, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) wants them to be able to vote in the Nov. election from wherever they may live.

"COVID-19 is being used an excuse to make it difficult for people to register, to make it difficult for people to vote,” he said, referring to local laws that mandate in-person participation. 

Clyburn was among panelists who examined voter suppression efforts around the country at “The Power of Women in U.S. Elections,” a Showcase Program on during the American Bar Association Virtual Annual Meeting.

Each panelist had local examples.

Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, spoke on efforts to purge voters from the rolls in Texas. An initiative in 2019 to remove non-citizens utilized inaccurate DMV records, resulting in the elimination of hundreds of eligible voters.  

Angela J. Scott, general counsel at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, noted efforts in Maryland, where voters by absentee ballot must mail back their votes with a stamp when for the primary no postage was required. “Now midway through this exact same election season, we have changed the process.”

Clyburn said the same kind of tactics are being used in his home state. “They were doing that in South Carolina just two weeks ago. Here in South Carolina, there's several lawsuits [as a result],” he said, mentioning similar efforts also in the Buckeye State. “When they sent out the ballots in Ohio, they sent them out without any postage on them, thereby applying a poll tax.”

A list of 61 forms of voter suppression was shared by Barbara Arnwine, president of the Transformative Justice Coalition, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., that addresses issues related to equal justice.

Most of the panelists agreed with Clyburn on providing alternatives to in-person voting and encouraging more voter participation, particularly as the pandemic will likely depress the turnout.

Clyburn said that more than 20 states already allow mail-in voting and in some states, all voting is done by mail.

California Republican National Committeewoman Harmeet Dillon said she prefers voting in person, saying it’s the best way to ensure that her vote counts.  As a minority, she said she doesn’t “trust the mail to get my ballot there on time.”

Acknowledging that voter suppression indeed exists, Dillon also warned of tactics to dilute the vote including, voting more than once, perhaps in two separate states; and voting by non-citizens.

Clyburn said that many people in the South are suspicious of the U.S. Postal Service. But, “I think we can make it possible for people to post their ballot without ever putting it in the mail,” he said, noting that Colorado uses ballot boxes.

“In Colorado, people can sit at their kitchen table, fill out the ballots and when they're on their way to the grocery store or to the drugstore, they can go to that ballot box and put their own ballot in the box and not ever go through the mail.”

Despite the preferences of the voting rights advocates, Saenz pointed out the difficulty in implementing such measures, noting that change requires new legislation from each state.

To make a long-term impact on the problem, Saenz believes a constitutional change is in order. “I continue to note the need to formerly recognize in our Constitution, a right to vote as fundamental, so that we could use that in litigation to protect any attempts to suppress the vote.”

“The Power of Women in U.S. Elections” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.