From The Daily: John Lewis’ legacy and resisting voter suppression in America

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 6:58pm

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Photo courtesy of Miles Macklin

On July 17, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Rev. C.T. Vivian, both giants in the fight for fairness and freedom, passed away. Lewis, a breathtakingly powerful figure of the Civil Rights Movement, spent his entire life fighting for humanity and civil rights, making voting rights a key part of his activism. He risked his life countless times in an effort to enfranchise voters. Eventually, public pressure evoked by media circulation of police brutality in America led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a step that empowered Black voters and ultimately led to Lewis’s informal title — “conscience of the U.S. Congress.” In a 1971 House testimony, Lewis stated, “We have to look beyond the glowing reports of a new South. We have to recognize the fallacies of those who would tell us that Federal registrars and observers are no longer needed. We cannot allow ourselves to be duped into believing that, in these so-called new and changing times, the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed.” Fervently, Lewis continued with, “There are fewer violent tactics, but the subtle and more sophisticated forms of intimidation are still being devised and are quite prevalent.” Today, nearly half a century later, Americans are still fighting for the same freedoms.

In light of recent voter suppression cases worsened by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the spirit of Lewis and Vivian’s lifelong work, we as college students and as a broader community of young people need to prioritize and take advantage of our right to vote, especially at this moment. The University of Michigan has resources for educating students about where and how to vote, but these resources need to be more widely advertised and accessible. In June 2019, Lewis stated, “I have said this before, and I will say it again. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.” 

Unfortunately, the ability to vote historically has been and continues to be difficult for many across the United States. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, an influential conservative, stated, “I don’t want everybody to vote ... As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Most unfortunately, and thanks in part to a conservative advocacy group founded by Weyrich, the GOP’s efforts to disenfranchise voters have been more widespread and effective since the 2010 elections. The American Legislative Exchange Council — funded in part by the billionaire Koch brothers who also bankrolled the Tea Party — has been a key part in the systematic campaign to impede voters in nearly every step of the electoral process, and has done so successfully with 38 states introducing legislation designed to do just that. 

One of the most notable and recent changes to overload the system came in the form of requiring a government-issued photo ID. This mandate disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of voters, the methodology of which being dependent on specific state legislation. For example, up until June 2017, Texas accepted concealed-weapon permits at polls, but not student IDs. Similarly, in Wisconsin, a state with roughly 340,000 college students, student IDs are not sufficient for voting, requiring students to make multiple additional steps in order to cast their ballot. After Wisconsin implemented its new voter ID law in 2011, which required students to provide multiple forms of identification, it became one of the strictest states for voting and it was estimated that some 242,000 students may have lacked the documentation required to vote — something that was unheard of even two years previously. Analiese Eicher, a Dane County, Wis., board supervisor, commented, “It’s like creating a second class of citizens in terms of who gets to vote.” 

In the fall of 1918, as midterm elections approached during the end of World War I and the second wave of the Spanish flu emerged in September, voters witnessed “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.” Today, as history so often likes to repeat itself, Americans are enduring similar situations. In the midst of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, paired with a deadly pandemic that has taken the lives of over 143,000 individuals in the U.S. and a presidential election on the horizon, the country is scrambling for ways to uphold the constructs of constitutional democracy while fighting for the lives of their neighbors, brothers and sisters. 

Some states, such as Michigan, have recently adopted new voting laws where anyone can now choose to vote via absentee ballot without requiring a reason. On March 10, 2020, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said that “all of Michigan’s 7.7 million registered voters will be mailed absentee ballot applications so they can take part in elections in August and November without the risk of in-person voting if they choose to do so.” Benson’s office also “reported a surge in new voter registration after seeing numbers drop off sharply during the height of the coronavirus outbreak in Michigan.” As people across the nation fear for their health, many are choosing socially-distanced voting options, if at all possible. Unfortunately, mail-in voting is not a feasible option in many states, and Americans have witnessed countless individuals jeopardize their health in order to fulfill their democratic duties. 

On June 9, Georgia held its primary election with 214 fewer polling places than it had in 2013, largely due to the Supreme Court’s gutting of significant parts of the Voting Rights Act, which allowed nine states to modify their election laws without seeking approval from the federal government. The state also introduced over $100 million worth of new electronic voting machines. Through a combination of machine malfunction, poor planning and a lack of poll workers, these machines did not work, leading many voters to wait in line for hours. In addition, not enough absentee ballots were distributed, leading to many registered voters finding themselves unable to vote despite having requested a mail-in ballot on time.

Georgia’s disastrous primary resulted in a textbook case of voter suppression, a complex, undemocratic political strategy to create barriers or ultimately prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to vote. Required photo ID and most anti-voter fraud legislation are forms of voter suppression. This tactic often targets people of color and low-income individuals. Many of Georgia’s polling station closures, as well as most of their machine errors on June 9, were in counties with large Black populations. Majority-white areas had notably fewer problems voting. 

Some argue that modern voter suppression is not an intentional or malicious act. Ill will is difficult to prove. However, voting security measures and poorly-managed elections today continue to impact those who have already been disproportionately affected by systemic oppression, further obstructing their ability to exercise fundamental democratic rights and freedoms. These consequences should not be excusable. As Lewis himself put it in July 2011, “Voting rights are under attack in America ... There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.”

As the Michigan primaries approach, the University can also do more to make sure students have the necessary resources to exercise their right to vote. There is a voter registration button on Wolverine Access, for example, but it is at the bottom of the page and only exists as a button on the old version of the site — one has to search for “voter registration” directly to find this information on the new interface. In a December 2019 interview from The Daily with University President Mark Schlissel, when asked if he would consider automatically registering students to vote, he responded, “I’d want to think about it more. My goal alternatively is to make it as easy as possible for people to register and that as easy as possible for people to vote, but you still have to take personal responsibility.” Organizations such as the Ginsberg Center can promote civic engagement on campus, but that information is clearly not being disseminated well if students were still having trouble voting as recently as the March presidential primary. Barriers to students voting are likely to worsen as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said, “I know that if he was still with us, he would be leading that fight. What we have to do is live up to his legacy. We need to continue that fight for social justice. And again, the first thing we need to do is pass the Voting Rights Act and get it signed.” Lewis — along with countless other selfless, empowering leaders today — have left roadmaps for us to follow in the fight for social justice and freedom. 

The state of Michigan’s primary is on Aug. 4. You have until 5 p.m. on July 31 to request an absentee ballot.