Defining voter suppression is hard, which has made confronting the problem even more difficult.
Certain forms of voter suppression are clear. For instance, armed militias policing predominantly Black polling locations, or the threatening emails signed by the Proud Boys (that the US government alleges were a fraud perpetrated by Iran) which were sent to voters in several states.
There are murkier cases, however. Is it suppression if a jurisdiction fails to properly train its poll workers and the line takes hours to progress? How about if your friend pesters you about your vote so much that you abstain from engaging altogether? If a Milwaukee reader finds Vox’s reporting on the recent Supreme Court decision ruling that a vote-by-mail deadline should not be extended and then feels discouraged — is that voter suppression? Can covering voter suppression become a self-fulfilling problem?
Complicating the matter, we’re seeing signs of sky-high voter participation rates across the country and there are some people confirming that making voting more difficult has actually inspired them to turn out. So, is voter suppression simply a matter of intent or should we still focus on the impact?
Media needs to be sensitive to this debate, says Myrna Pérez, the director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program.
“Now, there will be some people who are deterred. It can both be true that some people are deterred and also that some people are inspired,” she told Vox, pointing out that there are responsible ways to cover issues of potential voter suppression without “nationalizing the worst case scenario.”
Pérez has studied voter suppression extensively. In our discussion below we discussed how to identify voter suppression, the value in distinguishing intentional suppression as a deliberate tactic, the ways in which suppression disproportionately harm Black and brown communities, and the media’s responsibility in reporting on these issues carefully.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
First things first, I was hoping that you could just talk us through what voter suppression is and how you identify it.
Voter suppression is an attempt to depress turnout or participation. There are other things that can suppress the vote like people making mistakes or technical or nuts and bolts-y glitches and those certainly suppress the vote. But I use voter suppression in a way where there is some actor trying to reduce access to the ballot.
At the same time I don’t think we should let politicians and election administrators off the hook for these nuts and bolts problems that depress turnout. The election system has been built on top of a process that for too long has excluded members of our country. And we need to see proactivity to address those barriers.
So we need to be able to appropriately label things so we know how to deal with the problem at hand. But I also don’t want to let anybody off the hook for not making sure that they are being proactive about ending practices or correcting mistakes or problems that have stood in the way of free, fair, and accessible elections.
That’s a really interesting distinction because I’ve seen this conversation happening between intentional vs. unintentional voter suppression. Is that a useful distinction if at the end of day what we’re worried about is ‘Are people being stopped from voting or are they not being stopped from voting’?
It’s useful so that we can fix it. We need to appropriately label it but all of it is a problem. All of it is a choice, or it’s somebody choosing not to do something. We need to be accountable for those things. When we know that something produces barriers for certain communities or hits at certain communities the hardest, I don’t think it’s appropriate to say ‘well we didn’t mean to, that’s just kind of how it happened.’
When you see things like New York’s early vote or Georgia’s early vote with extremely long lines there’s some folks who think that those things shouldn’t be considered intentional voter suppression because it’s just an indication that people are excited to vote.
I’m somewhere in between. To me, a long line is per se proof of a problem. Now, what’s the problem? The problem may have been they didn’t plan right for enough people showing up, they didn’t make sure that they had enough voting machines, they miscalculated how many polling locations they needed, they miscalculated how many people voting by mail were going to turn it in versus showing up to vote on Election Day, or they didn’t have their poll workers trained to move quickly.
A long line is per se proof of a growth opportunity — something we could have done better and we didn’t. In those circumstances it’s super important to figure out what it is and then to do it. The biggest tragedy from all of this would be for us not to be learning from our mistakes. If we want the best democracy in the world, we need to be a country that learns, that adapts.
I want to ask you about your June report, “Waiting to Vote”, published by the Brennan Center. You write: “... some might conclude that voters of color wait longer because they tend to live in counties with fewer electoral resources. Our analyses do not support this hypothesis; on average, we find, counties with higher minority shares of the population did not have fewer resources per voter than whiter counties did in 2018.” Can you explain this? Because this might seem counterintuitive for some people.
So we found a few very interesting things. One, we found that communities of color waited longer in lines. Two we found that wait times are correlated to resources. Three, we found that, as a statistical matter, generally speaking, communities of color did not experience fewer resources at a county level. But what we did find was that communities that were undergoing lots of demographic changes did.
And it only went in one direction — as a community got less white at a rapid clip, and more poor at a rapid clip, we started seeing fewer resources per voter. And I think there are a couple of things related to this: One is that stable communities, even when they are homogenous and of color have likely been able to become a part of the political power structure such that they are able to demand and command resources. It’s as communities are up and coming in the numbers that you start seeing under-service.
What we took from that was that — the statistical term is sensitivity — is that not every community was being reactive enough to the fact that its community was changing, and they were trying to do same-old, same-old when they were serving a different population.
And by community do you mean the local government officials?
Yeah, whoever is in charge with allocating resources and seeing how they are distributed. We actually even had somebody tell us that. In our report, we had someone tell us that after the census we’re going to have to provide increased language assistance but no one’s making us do it now so we’re not going to until they make us. So they already had known that their community was not the same one that they had been serving 10 years before and yet there was no interest in doing anything more than the bare minimum.
Pivoting towards extra-legal attempts to suppress the vote: there are things ranging from threatening emails signed by the Proud Boys which the US government is alleging are Iranian election interference to Trump’s attempts to discredit mail-in voting as well as Trump encouraging folks go to the polls to watch what’s going on, potentially setting up people for conflict. How do you think this is affecting voters?
I am super proud of voters. Americans are saying in a pretty clear voice — our elections matter and we’re not going to let some politicians or some fringe folks deter us.
Now, there will be some people who are deterred. It can both be true that some people are deterred and also that some people are inspired. I think we need to be really careful about looking at statewide turnout numbers to decide that voter suppression happened or didn’t happen because I don’t think that’s how it works. Just like, I couldn’t tell you, “Oh, our problems will be solved if we pass automatic voter registration” or “our problems will be solved if we pass Election Day registration.” I also can’t tell you that everyone will be suppressed if the Proud Boys show up or even if someone threatens that the Proud Boys are going to show up.
Voters are a collection of individuals that are going to have different risk factors, different risk profiles and different animating inspirations and different animating concerns. What we need to be mindful of is making sure that we have policies and practices that allow for all Americans, in all of our diversity with all of our differing concerns to be able to participate freely and fairly.
Because it’s not a democracy for most of us, it’s a democracy for all of us. Those whose margins are the tightest are going to be the ones that these are going to be hit hardest. You or I are not going to get fired if we have to wait in a really long line to vote, other people may not be so lucky and we need to remember that Americans’ lives are different and this is really hard right now.
Something that’s really relevant for Vox and all of media right now is ... how do we report on this issue responsibly to give out necessary information without increasing folks’ fears and potentially discouraging people from voting?
I’m glad you asked, so thank you for raising it and being sensitive to it. The big challenge is “right-sizing” what it is that you’re hearing. Just because there are some yahoos out there that are talking about going and monitoring elections ... that’s not the same thing as them actually being able to have their stuff together to pull it off.
The bigger issue is to not be nationalizing one-off problems. I was on a radio show once and somebody called me all freaked out that their ballot was going to get rejected because of signature matching and this person was in a state that doesn’t do signature-matching. That’s not one of the problems in their states.
Don’t take a problem that’s in one place and make it sound like it’s a problem everywhere because that, I think, confuses people. Some states have witness requirements but they’re a minority so make sure when you talk about them that you’re not ignoring it when you’re trying to public education but there’s no reason to suggest that more states have it than do. Because then people will start thinking that they’re one of them.
It’s a big problem with felony disenfranchisement. There’s a phenomenon that we call de facto disenfranchisement where people are under the impression that they can’t vote, even when they can. I will never forget when I was a law student and I was trying to register people to vote. And someone would be like “No, I can’t register, I’m on probation” ... at the time people on probation could have voted! I was just upset and shocked that people would be wrong about something like that.
Just make sure you’re not nationalizing the worst-case scenario. You can report on the news and contextualize it. You can report on the news and make sure you’re not making it sound like it’s happening right down the street from everybody when it’s not. The vast majority of Americans are going to have a completely uneventful voting experience.