Existence of voter suppression remains divisive issue

Voter suppression was a powerful force throughout the course of American history, but its presence today remains a controversial topic. Photo Illustration by Brittney Matthews | Photo Editor

By Ava Dunwoody | Staff Writer

The right to vote is no longer reserved solely for white, land-owning men like it was in 1776, but are there still instances of voter suppression in modern politics? As a topic of recent political discourse, the idea of voter suppression poses a threat to the upcoming election.

A look at a historical timeline of American voting shows how amendments were made to the Constitution, which originally gave voting rights exclusively to “white men age 21 and older who own land.” After the 15th and 19th Amendments passed, the right to vote was extended to African Americans and women, respectively.

“Voter suppression itself is any sort of action that prevents eligible people from being able to vote, and that includes laws, rules and tactics,” Austin freshman Omar Islam said.

Islam said even with the amendments, voter suppression still affected minority populations.

Dr. Mito Diaz-Espinoza, Baylor’s associate director for civic learning initiatives, said poll taxes and literacy tests are examples of how voter suppression was still active after the amendments passed.

“These rules were not explicitly saying they only applied to Black people,” Diaz-Espinoza said. “But because African Americans in the South who were former slaves did not have the money to vote or the ability to learn to read and write, they were unable to complete these tasks or tests to vote. That’s the original idea of how we shaped the vote to disenfranchise a certain population.”

In 1962, the 24th Amendment eliminated poll taxes, and a year later, the Voting Rights Act suspended literary tests. With these regulations to protect voter rights in place, some believe voter suppression no longer exists, like Fort Worth senior Zachary Miller, president of Baylor Young Americans for Freedom.

“It’s nonsense,” Miller said. “There is no reasonable argument for [the existence of voter suppression]. If anything, we are being far too liberal with voting in this election. And by liberal, I mean in the literal sense of the word meaning we are being too permissive of voting.”

Miller said in Pennsylvania, mail-in ballots will now be counted until Nov. 6, three days after Election Day. This extension, Miller said, is an example of how voting has become less strict in this election.

“To say that there is voter suppression, that is very difficult to square with what is actually happening,” Miller said. “I would say in this election more than any other, people are able to vote quite freely. You are probably going to see that in turnout.”

Diaz-Espinoza, on the other hand, said “there are a lot of elements to voter suppression,” and that even though it looks different, it does still exist.

“The voter suppression that we see now is more subtle and it is done so and framed so in a way that doesn’t specifically target race,” Diaz-Espinoza said. “But [it is] done in a certain way that targets specific groups without saying specifically they are targeting certain groups.”

For example, Diaz-Espinoza said “the overall closing of polling places of certain counties and zip codes,” like what happened in the 2016 election, leads to longer lines that make it harder to get individuals to vote.

Other potential methods of voter suppression include mail-in voters without access to stamps who don’t know about USPS’ policy to deliver ballots even without postage.

Disadvantages for the disabled may also be a factor. In the 2016 election, the United States Government Accountability Office surveyed 178 polling locations and found that 65% of them did not meet the standards required for disability-accommodating voting.

Diaz-Espinoza said because “anything not explicitly written in the Constitution is up to the states,” variations in voting regulations by state often lead to specific cases of voter suppression. He referred to Gov. Abbott’s new drop off ballot box policy that limits drop off locations to one per county.

In places like Harris county, Diaz-Espinoza said, which has more people than many states like Rhode Island, there is now a single ballot drop off location. He said even though voters don’t have to use the drop box, in-person voting lines threaten COVID-19 exposure and mailing in votes isn’t as reliable.

With “talk of the post office and delivery times and information about removing sorting machines,” Diaz-Espinoza said, people “are fearful that their ballot will not get there in time, so they want to drop them off and use ballot locations, but with those being removed, it is seen as a form of voter suppression.”

Miller, however, said what is happening in Texas is not voter suppression. From his perspective, the limitations on voting are set in place to prevent voter fraud and ensure votes are counted accurately.

“[Democrats] will say that Republicans are trying to suppress the vote in Texas, but if that’s the case, why is it that … more people have voted in Texas already than have voted in 2018 in total, or at least we are getting close to that,” Miller said. “We are on pace to have much higher turnout than we did in 2016, so the numbers really seem to contradict that.”

According to a 2018 poll conducted by Hill.TV and the HarrisX polling company, 49% of the 1,000 surveyed voters agreed with Miller and said voter fraud was the real issue. The majority of 51% said voter suppression was a bigger issue.

While there is disparity on the presence of voter suppression in the modern age, Miller and Diaz-Espinoza both said they agree that it was once a large part of American history. If anything, Diaz-Espinoza said the history of voter suppression points to the importance of voting.

“Seeing how hard people work to limit your voice and limit your vote should let you know how powerful your vote is,” Diaz-Espinoza said. “Understanding the history of voter suppression, the magnitude of it and the nuances of it, should give you insight to how valuable your vote is.”