Donald Trump has made one thing clear: he doesn’t care about democracy or protecting your right to vote.
With an on-going pandemic hampering local and state government’s capacity to run safe elections, Trump and the GOP at every level are making it harder for people to vote. In Florida, people who are formerly convicted of felonies have to pay off fines before they are able to cast ballots in this year’s election—even though Florida voters, through referendum in 2018, decided that a felony should no longer preclude a person from voting. In several states across the nation, Republicans are holding up mail-in ballots and trying to limit the number of drop-off ballot boxes under the unproven argument of voter fraud. Then, of course, there is the very real specter of Trump campaign-trailed supporters who may be deployed to intimidate voters at the polls under the gaze of poll watchers.
And the reality is that you may not be able to rely on your elected officials, particularly in GOP-controlled areas, to help you because they are likely the ones behind the voter suppression. And if you see men with guns near your polling station, it may not be wise to call the cops because they, too, may not help the situation.
As a voter, how do you protect yourself against these attempts to undermine your right to cast a ballot? Activists and voter rights advocates told The Root that the No. 1 thing people can do is educate themselves on how they plan to vote.
“Voters need to come up with a plan on how they are going to vote,” said Michael Pernick, an attorney who works on both LDF’s Prepared to Vote and Voting Rights Defender projects. “If you are going to be voting by mail, it’s important to understand the requirements in your state. Make sure you’re signing the envelope. Make sure you’re checking all of those boxes, so your ballot won’t be shunted off into a queue like you’re seeing in North Carolina with absentee ballots that aren’t being counted. North Carolina has had a pretty significant history of issues along these lines.”
Pernick is referring to the 1,000 or so ballots at Guilford County Board of Elections in North Carolina that are waiting to be “cured,” a process by which a voter can correct any mistakes on their ballot so it can be counted. Some states follow up with voters if there is an issue with their ballot, but some require the voter to do the following up.
Black voters make up 16 percent of total ballot returns, but account for nearly 40 percent of ballots labeled as “pending” or “pending cure,” according to CNN.
“We know there are disparities, so voters coming up with a plan is the most important thing individual folks can do,” Perick said. “But we have to identify disparities and work to prevent them. But the obligation is really on the states and election officials to make this process easier.”
Republicans aren’t making that happen. In Georgia, Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, said her organization is doing the voter education work that Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refuse to do because it is not in the best interests of their party. Her group has been working with legal organizations to monitor polling sites for any potential irregularities and signs of intimidation. Georgia just started early voting this week and it continues until October 30. Ufot said one of the best defenses against voter suppression is voting early. Even if you cannot succeed in voting the first time, you can always return again. So far, the biggest problems in Georgia are long lines and a lack of clarity about social distancing rules at polling sites and how that impacts how efficiently people can vote.
Ufot says the ongoing pandemic has impeded much of the in-person work of getting used to the types of new voting machines Georgia recently purchased for the election. She added that many polling stations around the state have ample machines, but all of them aren’t available because of some technical difficulties, the need for social distancing or other issues.
“So there’s not a lot of public, really clear communication about what the law requires or mandates as it relates to physical distancing,” she said. “And so it seems like in some instances a desire to keep voters safe and to physically distance is also resulting in an extreme limitation of the lines of people voting. I’ve heard it compared to bouncers at the club holding the line. So the line is extraordinarily long outside, even though there’s more capacity inside the club.”
Another issue holding lines up are people figuring out how to vote on measures and amendments they are seeing for the first time. So the New Georgia Project launched readyset.vote so voters can type in their address and pull up a sample ballot. The more people know ahead of time, the more efficient the poll lines can move.
The impetus behind much of the voter suppression we’re seeing is that Republicans fear they can lose this election big. What’s more is that many states they believed would never turn blue show signs of flipping, like Georgia. The state is in play for Democrats for the first time in decades. Biden has a comfortable lead over Trump in the state and both Democratic senate candidates are performing well, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll released Tuesday. Jon Ossoff is ahead of his GOP challenger David Perdue 51-45. Warnock, who is in the so-called “jungle primary” is ahead of both of the closest Republican challengers with a commanding 41 percent versus U.S. Rep. Doug Collins at 22 percent and Kelly Loeffler at 20. Biden leads Trump 51-44, according to the poll.
Bill Clinton was the last Democratic president to win Georgia, in 1992. After that, it was considered safely red. But with shifting racial demographics trending to a majority minority, Georgia Democrats have been working at the local level to turn the state blue. In 2018, Stacey Abrams barely lost the gubernatorial race in an election that was wrought with voter suppression. She ran with the message that Georgia is a blue state and that its residents don’t reflect the Dixie stereotypes of its Jim Crow days
“Nobody believes that. Not even the Republicans. That’s why they’re engaged in voter suppression,” Warnock said. “They see that the wind is at our back and the momentum is with us. And that’s why they play these games. Georgia is already a blue state. And we saw, we saw the early expression of that, I think in 2018. I mean, there’s no question that Stacey was running against an opponent who was both the opponent on the field, running the bases, just like her, but able to call balls and strikes, unlike her They see it coming and they’re trying to slow it down by gazing at voter suppression. We intend to expedite that work by registering portions of the electorate. That tier two, four has been ignored and motivates them to show up by providing them an excellent field of candidates.”
In the other Senate race, Ossoff was a lot more blunt about the long lines in mostly Black polling areas.
“This is called James Crow, Esq,” he said. “I got to attribute that to those who have so rightly pointed out that this is a story as old as the South. This is the new poll tax.”
The Trump campaign is training some 50,000 volunteers to watch polls, adding more potential chaos to an already intense election cycle. With Trump and the Republicans looking to intimidate voters at the polls, it is best to know who is eligible to be a poll watcher and what they can and can’t do. Some states do have laws that sanction poll watchers appointed by political parties. In Georgia, state law requires poll watchers to wear badges saying “Official Poll Watcher.” In national elections, political parties can appoint two poll watchers per voting precinct, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Generally speaking, poll watchers are not allowed to talk to voters, use recording devices, interfere in any way and voters have a right to report any behavior poll watchers they deem illegal to a poll worker or, preferably, the poll site supervisor.
In fact, it is wise to do your homework on who, exactly, can be a poll watcher or not. For example, in Florida, it is against state law for a police officer to be a poll watcher.
Voter intimidation is illegal and examples of it include brandishing firearms or intimidating displays of firearms, violent behavior inside or outside polling stations, confronting voters while wearing military-style or official-looking uniforms, blocking entrances to polling sites, aggressively approaching voters’ vehicles and spreading false information.
Usually, one would call police in to solve an issue with voter intimidation—especially with armed white men with guns who have vowed to show up at the polls. Kenosha County, Wis., Sheriff David Beth, for example, warned militia members not to “bring any guns to the polling places, don’t put any form of intimidation out there.”
Pernick, citing Black communities’ decades-long distrust of and abuse by police officers, says the NAACP-LDF is urging election officials only to call on police “as a last resort.”
If you have any troubles at the polls, Pernick says to call 866 Our Vote.
Another way to avoid challenges at the polls is to know the rules in your state. Some states require certain types of identification to vote. In Kentucky, for example, a photo ID with your name and photo on it is required. The state also has guidelines for people who could not get an ID due to pandemic-related issues; 35 states require some form of ID. Then there are dress code rules in some states. California, Delaware, Kansas, Montana, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont restrict campaign apparel. So be ready to leave your MAGA hats and “Go Joe” T-shirts at home or be ready to take it off before you enter a voting station. The goal is to educate yourself on the rules of your state, so that you aren’t surprised or give anyone a reason to deny you the right to vote.
If, for any reason you are unable to vote because your name isn’t in the system or you forgot your ID, you can always cast a provisional ballot, a right you have via federal law.
Angie Nixon, who recently won a Florida house seat out of Jacksonville, is actively working to get people formerly convicted of felons to understand their voting rights. A big problem in Florida is that Gov. Ron DeSantis has been waging legal battles in court since 2018 to keep people with felonies on their records from casting ballots and has worked with the Republicans, who have a supermajority in Tallahassee, to create laws stipulating that they must pay old fines and fees before they can vote.
“A lot of people don’t even know how much their fines and fees are,” Nixon said. “We partner with groups like the DW Perkins Bar Association and others and holding virtual town halls so people can learn where they can go to find out if they have to pay fines and fees and, of course, partnering with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition because they are receiving a lot of money from some donors so that they can help pay these fines and fees. So we direct people to them when they know how much they need to [pay].”
Above all, Nixon says, there is a lot of misinformation among people with felonies about the voter restoration process because DeSantis is “continuing trying to suppress them.”
The recurring themes activists and voter rights advocates are pushing to voters is voter early if you can, educate yourself on the voter rules of your state and be vigilant.
“The idea is that you know they on that bullshit. Right? We know,” Ufot said. “We’ve seen it. So why not do what we can to bank as many folks as possible early?”