Less than two weeks out from the midterm elections, high-profile cases of alleged voter suppression have emerged in at least three different states, raising concerns among voting rights advocates about obstacles for people of color in particular to get to the polls.
The moves in Georgia, Kansas, and North Dakota come as President Donald Trump has raised the specter of voter fraud, a practice that is, in reality, extremely rare. In a tweet last week, Trump warned, “Cheat at your own peril. Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!”
Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which works to combat voter suppression, called the tweet a clear attempt at intimidating voters. “That tweet was simply chilling and intended to instill fear, particularly in communities of color, that voting may result in entanglement with law enforcement,” she said.
Voting rights advocates lay the blame in part on a Supreme Court decision in 2013, Shelby County v. Holder, which weakened protections for voters of color. The ruling rolled back part of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of racial discrimination against voters to seek approval from federal authorities before changing voting regulations or moving polling places.
“Voter suppression has definitely intensified since the SCOTUS ruling,” said Clarke.
“That federal process often caught and blocked discriminatory voting laws and policies like what we’re seeing today,” she added.
Voting rights have become a central issue in Georgia’s governor’s race, and dominated the first debate gubernatorial debate on Tuesday night. Republican gubernatorial candidate and Secretary of State Brian Kemp is being sued by voters’ rights groups after the Associated Press reported that his office put 53,000 voter registration applications on hold, most of which were for black voters.
Kemp has said the registrations are being held up because of voter roll maintenance — the groups suing him and his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, call it voter roll purging.
Most of those 53,000 registrations were put on hold, the AP reported, because they did not pass Georgia’s “exact match” voter identification law, which requires that voter applications exactly match up to names on file with the state agency that issues driver’s licenses or the Social Security Administration’s records. That allows officials to put registrations on hold over minor mismatches like typos, entry errors, and dropped hyphens on last names.
A federal judge issued an order Wednesday blocking the state from putting holds on absentee ballots and applications for ballots for the same signature issues.
A separate investigation by an independent journalist found that 534,000 voters were purged from the rolls in Georgia in 2016 and 2017 on the grounds that they had not voted in three years and did not respond to a card asking if they still lived at their address. At least 334,134 of those still lived at the address on their voter registrations, according to journalist Greg Palast’s analysis.
Additionally, the New York Times reported on Thursday that 4,700 applications to vote by mail had gone missing in DeKalb County, one of the most populous counties in the state, which includes parts of Atlanta. DeKalb is majority black and typically votes Democrat. The Times cited “multiple” sources who said that county officials had informed Democrats of the missing applications on a call last week. The chair of the county’s elections board denied that the applications were missing.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups suing Kemp over the 53,000 registrations, told BuzzFeed News that it's seeing interference with voting rights on both the local and state levels in Georgia.
“Vigilance is required every day between now and the election,” executive director Clarke told BuzzFeed News. “It is often at this moment, in the eleventh hour, that we see some of the ugliest attempts to lock voters out of the process.”
Just last week in Jefferson County, Georgia, a group of black senior citizens was ordered off of a bus taking them to vote, after a count administrator called their senior center.
The county administrator, Adam Brett, argued that the trip was a "political activity," which is not allowed at county events. The senior center is county-run, although the bus and the trip being were organized by a nonprofit.
Brett told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Jefferson County administration felt uncomfortable with allowing senior center patrons to leave the facility in a bus with an unknown third party.” He added, "No seniors at the Jefferson County senior center were denied their right to vote."
But the nonprofit that organized the trip, the Black Voters Matter Fund, said in a Facebook post, "Voter suppression is real, y'all, and it happened to us today in Louisville, Georgia, in Jefferson County."
The senior center eventually told the residents they could take a bus to vote another day, the Journal-Constitution reported.
In North Dakota, advocates worry about a voter ID law that could cause major problems for voters in 2018, particularly Native Americans. While the state doesn’t require people to register before voting, it does require voters to show ID with a residential address listed on it to vote on Election Day.
Native Americans who live on any of the five reservations in North Dakota say they will be disadvantaged by this law because they don’t necessarily have residential addresses on their reservations, where many people rely on post office boxes for mail and address purposes.
There are some 31,329 Native Americans in North Dakota, according to the state’s Indian Affairs Commission, with around 60% of them living on reservations. Tribal leaders have spoken out against the law and it was challenged in the courts. The case made it to the Supreme Court — which declined to overturn it earlier this month.
"Native Americans can live on the reservations without an address. They're living in accordance with the law and treaties, but now all of a sudden they can't vote," said Standing Rock chair Mike Faith in a statement on Facebook after the Supreme Court decision. "Our voices should be heard, and they should be heard fairly at the polls just like all other Americans."
State officials say, however, that voters can request a street address and a letter confirming it in order to comply with the law. But one of the problems with the law, leaders say, is that voters may not even know there’s a problem with their lack of street address identification until they actually get to the polls on Election Day. The other point of confusion: Because the Supreme Court case was pending at the time, identification without a street addresses was accepted during the primaries.
One Native American organization, Four Directions, is working on having a tribal official with authority to issue an official letter with a residential address to voters at every polling site in the state on Election Day, according to the Bismarck Tribune.
Voters in Dodge City, Kansas, which is majority Latinx, are facing a different kind of voter suppression, advocates say, after state officials moved the town’s only polling booth outside city limits and a mile away from the closest bus stop.
The lone polling site serves more than 13,000 voters, while others in the state serve on average 1,200 voters, the ACLU told the Kansas City Star. Dodge City’s residents are 60% Latino.
Officials moved the polling site due to construction, according to the Star. But the county Democratic party chair, Johnny Dunlap, told the paper that the problems for Dodge City voters are not new, noting that it’s “one of the few minority majority cities in the state.” Because the city has had just one polling place, voters have at times had to wait more than an hour in line to vote.
The state Democratic Party issued a statement calling the move “an act of voter suppression, plain and simple,” adding that Latino turnout in the last midterm election in the city was just 17%, compared to 61% for white residents of Dodge City. The Kansas City Star’s editorial board called the move “voter suppression at its worst” in a scathing editorial this week.
Advocacy group Voto Latino is working with Lyft to provide transportation to the polling station on Election Day. The state Democratic party also tweeted that it is raising money and recruiting volunteers to help Dodge City residents get to the site to vote.
Republican Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach is on the ballot in the Kansas governor’s race, facing Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly. Kobach, an ally of President Trump’s, has been a proponent of strict voter identification laws — including a law he championed in the state that required voters to prove their citizenship when registering to vote. That law was struck down by a federal judge earlier this year.