The 2020 US presidential election began on Sept. 4 when North Carolina distributed the first mail-in ballots. The election wasn’t formally called until Nov. 7 and, even then, the vote remained heavily contested.
The whole turbulent affair tested the durability of US electoral politics and, in the aftermath, figures across the political spectrum are seeking to make changes to the electoral system to fix what they see as its flaws and shortcomings.
This project to transform voting is moving with tremendous speed. Hundreds of bills related to voting have already been proposed at the state level since the last election. US President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order to promote voting access, and federal legislators are trying to pass a sweeping new bill called HR1 to restore and expand the Voting Rights Act.
Global Citizen recently spoke with Tappan Vickery, director of voter engagement at the nonprofit HeadCount, to better understand the landscape of voting rights and the efforts underway to both expand and restrict the right to vote.
Can you recap the voter suppression effort that took place during the 2020 election?
The 2020 election was really unique because of COVID-19. We had to acknowledge that we didn’t have a pandemic-proof democracy. A lot of changes happened that were good and based on sound information to increase vote-by-mail and early voting. Sometimes that happened at the local level, sometimes it was a board of elections that made that call, and sometimes that required an executive order by the governor or the state legislature passing a new law.
The courts became the battleground for voter suppression and were dealing with this narrative of voter fraud. States were ready to run these vote-by-mail systems, and were figuring out the nitty gritty of how ballots get rejected and counted, whether or not you have to provide ID or your signature, whether there were drop boxes for ballots or if you could return your ballots in person, and if you could even get a ballot without an excuse. Dates changed, requirements changed, forms changed.
All of these things became the legal battleground for confusing the voters and rapidly going back and forth between laws. There was a substantial amount of third-party interest lawsuits that kept that conversation going and it really stopped being about the voter. It stopped being about democracy and it started being about how to use the pandemic as a power grab to try to sway the election.
How does the Supreme Court decision to weaken the Voting Rights Act still reverberate today?
When the preclearance requirement was repealed in 2013, there were immediate effects. The first thing was massive changes to voter ID requirements across the country. Voter ID is a challenge for people who are poor, people who are old — and particularly people of color who are old in the South because sometimes the records literally don’t exist. If you live in a rural community and have to track down your records and drive to a county clerk to try and find a birth certificate to get an ID, it's a huge undertaking. And then young people often don’t get a driver’s license at 16 anymore. You can live in an urban environment and not ever get a license. Maybe at some point you’ll get a state-issued ID card if they require it, but it doesn’t always count as voter ID.
The other thing that happened was voter roll purging. Prior to the preclearance requirement being repealed, there was some regulation around who the states could purge from their voter rolls — and afterwards it became a free for all. As of right now, a state can decide to purge their voter rolls any way they want, and so they do things like search people by low-income, transient neighborhoods, or they search people based on surnames that may be associated with Latinx or Black communities. The Brennan Center reported that between 2014 and 2018, 2 million people were purged from the rolls in ways that would have required the preclearance requirement before.
Another thing that's particularly notable is that there has been a massive loss of polling locations. Over 2,000 of the [closed sites] are in specifically Black and brown communities, which makes it hard for people to vote. I’m going to go back to rural voters because I think sometimes it’s easy for people to think about this in an urban way. But let’s think about it: You live in a rural community, it’s 45 minutes to an hour for you to drive somewhere to vote and then you get there and it’s closed. You voted at the same place your whole life and then it’s another 45 minutes for you to drive to the next spot. This is targeted to make people not vote.
Can you break down the proposed legislation across the country to both restrict and expand voting rights?
The thing about the pending legislation is that we don’t know if it’s going to become law. In Georgia, there are six voter suppression bills that were proposed and there were six bills to expand voting access, and that’s really what you see across the country. There were rules that were expanded because of COVID and some of them are temporary, some of them expired because they were executive orders. You see people saying these measures really worked, we had great voter turnout — so those expansion bills around the country, those bills are all taking what we learned from a successful 2020 and are trying to codify it.
The other bills are based on the idea that we had a lot of voter fraud that’s been going on for a long time, and then we had the election in 2020 that was the most scrutinized election. It had more lawsuits afterward, people counted every vote, they followed up with voters in a lot of states, it was litigated, and we really know that there was no substantial voter fraud.
Their new narrative is that now we have to restore the public’s trust in elections, we have to make sure people believe there’s integrity in elections, so we have to pass these restrictive bills so people are confident that we are making sure there’s no opportunity for fraud in the election.
Let’s start with the fact that the fraud never existed and these bills directly restrict voter access.
One of the bills in Georgia that passed says that you can’t hand out pizza at the polls anymore. People were showing up passing out water bottles and pizza while voters were standing in line for hours, just trying to make it fun. Now, that’s illegal. They made pizza illegal.
Arizona was the first state to offer a permanent absentee list because of its retirement community and they have run amazing vote-by-mail elections forever. They’re trying to get rid of the system now.
On the flipside, there are also a lot of legitimate things and there are places here where we could really come together as a country.
There are states that have best practices that a lot of well-meaning election administrators care about because they want to run good elections, they want to train their staff well, and they want to do well.
When you get to the courts, which is what will happen because these laws will probably pass, you’re going to have people suing. When you sue in court, they’re gonna say, “This is clearly disenfranchising voters,” and they’re going to lean on the Voting Rights Act. Depending on where those cases land, there could be a Supreme Court decision or a district court decision that will define what is OK, and that will become the precedent for other states.
What is the promise and potential of HR1?
There are a few ways that HR1 will impact elections. HR1 can make some very direct changes that will impact access to voter registration and eliminate voter roll purging, and also standardize no-excuse absentee voting and 15 days of earling voting, and all of these things that we know improve elections. Then it’s up to the states to say, “OK, how much of this are we going to use for our state elections?”
It would also include same-day registration, which means if you moved, or you never registered, you can walk up on election day and register to vote. That’s incredibly impactful not only for young voters but also for those who have been purged. It would actually end “use-it-or-lose” voter roll purging.
One of the things I’m most excited about is standardizing a nonpartisan redistricting board for census data, so it would end congressional gerrymandering. Now, the states don’t have to do it, but it would affect the congressional districts, and if it’s a good practice, maybe the states would adopt it for their state districts.
HR1 would also create a way for there to be small donor matching and kind of end the super PAC donor selection system so it would really increase diversity of people who are able to run for office from different walks.
All of this stuff has been tested in other states. There’s literally nothing in this legislation that isn’t already vetted. We know it breaks down discrimination. We know it breaks down voter suppression. We know it increases participation of candidates and also voters. And, in many ways, it’s significantly more cost effective. Whether or not it passes is another thing. I think it’s really unfortunately that it passed the House on party lines because the bill itself has a bipartisan history and a lot of these ideas come from bipartisan collaboration.
The real question: When does believing in democracy trump party? For HeadCount, It always will. We have a call to action where people can reach out to elected reps to ask them where they stand on HR1.
How will Biden’s recent executive order improve voting access?
One of the things I’m most excited about in the executive order is improving federal resources for voter registration and modernizing vote.gov. A government website site that is approachable and modern is awesome and super important. I thought it was very symbolic that Biden took this stance on Bloody Sunday.
Biden can’t do an executive order about how you run an election, but I do think it was a very clear stance he made about how the federal government can support access to the election.
What should we pay attention to over the next year when it comes to voting rights?
Over the next year, you should totally be paying attention to your local election officials. You can do this on HeadCount. You can sign up for your state reps social media, follow them, sign up for their email lists, and let them know you’re paying attention. Particularly with young voters — because they're not necessarily going to turn out on the state level and they’re not always donating — their voices are often lost in the state narrative. Remember that Biden isn’t the decision-maker and congress isn't the decision mark on a lot of this. It comes down to the state-elected officials.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.