I felt very satisfied, but mostly surprised, when my uncle texted me a picture of his congratulatory “I Voted!” sticker: a seemingly miraculous feat since he is a Chinese American Democrat living in the conservative state of Texas where voter suppression — yes, this still happens today — is rampantly successful at discouraging apolitical citizens like him from exercising their First Amendment rights. It was a vastly different experience for my uncle to vote early in person in Texas than it was for me and my parents to quickly fill out a Connecticut absentee ballot and drop it off in person.
As it turns out, my uncle lives in a state that is one of the hardest places in which to vote. He wasn’t able to register to vote online, something offered in 40 states, and dealt with the strictest voter ID law in the country. This last part sounds fine, until you realize that such strict voter registration is just another expertly crafted tactic to disenfranchise voters of color. Study after study shows that impersonation fraud by voters rarely happens.
We realized he needed a bright orange voter registration card along with his driver’s license as proof of his eligibility to vote. By law, his county clerk’s office was supposed to have sent this to his new address after he updated it in the voting database, but it never came. He could have just skipped the card — and ended up doing so since he voted in his work building — but that meant potentially being denied casting his ballot for not showing proper ID. Texas also does not allow voters to cite fear of contracting COVID-19 as a valid reason to vote by absentee ballot. My uncle was forced to risk his health to cast his ballot and seriously considered sitting this election out.
Texas is a prime example of voter suppression, which both historically and today has been used to make voting harder for groups that tend to be more liberal: people of color, especially Black voters in the South; young people; and women. Laws such as the Voting Rights Act used to make it harder for states to explicitly ban certain groups of people from voting, but in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the law, making it easier to carry out voter suppression tactics.
This year, Texas’ Supreme Court ruled that Harris County, where my uncle lives, was not allowed to send absentee ballots to its 2.4 million registered voters due to the pandemic, citing that mail-in ballots are major sources of voter fraud, which isn’t true. Another appeals court also upheld a rule limiting absentee ballot drop-off locations to one box per county. Forty-two counties in Texas are bigger in area than the entire state of Rhode Island, yet Rhode Island has plenty of dropoff locations.
Texas’ method of using the courts to uphold modern-day voter suppression demonstrates exactly the problem: there is too much leeway in our system that muddies what should be a democratic process. Conservatives are manipulating the outcome of elections to ensure they remain in power. Although if you think about it, if they have to cheat to win, they probably shouldn’t be in power in the first place.
The tactics my uncle faced are some of the many ways to stop voters from casting their ballots. Others include the random shutdown of your polling place, requirements of secrecy envelopes in order for absentee ballots to count or eight-hour-long lines that discourage people from voting. More egregious methods include voter purges. Cleaning up voter rolls is a part of election administration, but some states like Texas use this time to also secretly purge eligible, registered voters for nonexistent reasons — around 17 million eligible voters were purged off of voter rolls nationwide between 2016 and 2018. Other states, like Ohio, have a “use it or lose it” law where voters are purged if they have missed two or more federal elections. Overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly, the voters who are purged vote blue or live in blue districts.
Nowadays, politicians don’t need to give you a poll tax or the infamous literacy test — although some Republican politicians are unabashedly unapologetic in their support of that. All they need to do is to make voting a little bit harder. Voter suppression tactics work because people like my uncle already find voting inconvenient. He’s not politically involved, he has to take time off from work to vote since Election Day is not a federal holiday and any further barriers will make him more inclined to stay at home.
Yet if your vote didn’t matter so much, those that fear it would not actively work to prevent you from exercising your constitutional right. There is a reason why Republicans work to strip away our civil rights: they know that without these tactics, they would lose their historical grip on power. Trump openly admitted that if voting was made easier, Republicans would lose, saying on Fox News, “They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” My uncle’s down-ballot blue vote means that the policies created will at least harm him less, if not benefit him more, because fewer votes are going to conservative politicians who will take away his access to health care and social security. His experience with voting demonstrates why your vote is so important, especially at the state and local level.
Of course, we do not just have to rely on the electoral system to create the change we need. But in order to combat voter suppression, we have to vote out the politicians who enforce it and vote in the politicians who will actively work to fight it. It bears remembering that many marginalized communities had to fight for their right to vote. If it didn’t exist originally, it can always be taken away.
CLAIRE CHANG is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.