Voter suppression is deeply imbedded in the history of the United States. Before there were voter ID laws, there were laws preventing lower class Whites, women, Blacks, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and many others from voting. The importance of voter suppression has been of longtime interest, but during the 2020 election it was particularly important due to the global pandemic that had stricken humanity. Heading into the 2020 primary and general elections there was much debate surrounding the validity of mail-in ballots. This debate for years was rooted in partisan politics with the major political parties sharply divided on this issue, with Republican states promoting in-person voting despite increasing coronavirus infections, and Democratic states implementing the use of mail-in ballots to protect the public. Republicans resisted the use of mail-in ballots arguing that it would result in a fraudulent election despite evidence to the contrary. Given that the use of masks had also become a partisan issue during the pandemic, in-person voting was expected to suppress voting among Democratic voters who feared contracting COVID-19 by being in public gatherings. Further, since the Trump administration had done little to contain the pandemic, many voters preferred to vote by mail. The more the election neared, the more the partisan debate intensified. While this is a current example of voter suppression tactics, historically there have been many.
Over time more groups gained the right to vote in this country, but even with having been granted the right to vote, racial and ethnic minorities have been more susceptible to voter suppression than other groups. Latinos, for example, face many barriers. One has to do with getting registered to vote. A report from the NALEO Educational Fund finds that Latinos face many challenges when registering to vote. In some states, such as Arizona and Kansas, individuals wishing to register to vote must provide proof of citizenship, unlike other states that verify citizenship after processing the application. Requiring proof of citizenship makes it harder for Latinos to register to vote because in some cases it is difficult to provide documentation despite being citizens. Another barrier is tied to registration timelines and the challenges Latinos experience in knowing when, where, and how to register to vote. Requiring individuals to register long in advance of an election creates problems for Latinos if they lack adequate civic skills or lack knowledge on registration deadlines. Rather than promoting voting participation, these tactics are intended to suppress voting among different populations. Allowing individuals to register to vote the day of an election allows for greater turnout among Latinos and other historically oppressed groups.
Latinos also experience challenges at the polls. As stated in the NALEO report, many Latinos go to poorly run polling locations where they are asked for voter IDs, encounter long lines, or lack Spanish interpreters who can provide clear ballot instructions. The requirement of voter IDs is a strong barrier for Latinos and other minorities. Many Latinos and African American are less likely to have IDs such as driver licenses. In addition to voter ID laws, during the 2020 elections, there were longer lines at polling locations than usual. Long lines have been a continual problem and a deterrent for racial and ethnic minorities to vote. For states that did not expand mail-in voting, there were long lines in which individuals had to wait to exercise their constitutional right. Wisconsin was a state that received large press coverage due to the long lines at the polls, with voters risking high exposure to the coronavirus. Thus, voter ID laws and excessively long lines at the polls create major barriers for Latinos and other racial and ethnic minorities to vote.
The latest voter suppression tactics took place in Texas, a state with the second largest Latino population in the country and where the suppression of Latino and African American voters extends over a century and a half. In early decades, Texas employed such tactics as poll taxes, “White Primaries,” English literacy tests, and later outright violence by the Ku Klux Klan. The English literacy test directly targeted Latinos, who were not allowed to vote if they could not read in English. In 2013, Texas passed a strict voter ID law which, among other things, accepts a handgun license issued by the Department of Public Safety as an acceptable form of ID, but not a college ID. This law made it more difficult for Latinos to register and vote in the state.
Further, Governor Abbott, who has a long history of employing voter suppression tactics, reduced the number of ballot drop boxes for persons using a mail-in ballot. He allowed only one drop box per county in Texas and was supported by the Texas Supreme Court. His reasoning was that he wanted to protect “election integrity” by preventing illegal voting. His decision made it more difficult for voters to use and drop off their mail-in ballots and to vote early. These tactics are simply new forms in the continuation of voter suppression of Latinos.
To counteract all the barriers Latinos face to vote, several organizations across the country have taken it upon themselves to increase the Latino vote. One particular organization is the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SWVEP) which was formed in 1974 by Willie Velasquez to increase the number of Latinos who were registered to vote and to ensure that they had adequate knowledge on how to vote. Other organizations that also focus on increasing Latino voter registration and turnout include Move Texas, which registers young Latinos, and Voto Latino, Mijente, Lucha AZ, Latino Victory, and United We Dream, to name a few. As a result of these grassroots organizations there has been an increase in the number of Latinos registered to and who voted.
One lesson that has been learned is that for Latinos, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities, political mobilization is one of the keys to increasing turnout among marginalized groups. Research shows that racial and ethnic groups are less likely to be mobilized to vote by either political party which hinders their chances of becoming aware of upcoming elections, awareness of the need to register and the details, and to become informed of when to vote and what key issues will be voted on. Further, research on political mobilization finds that mobilization increases the likelihood of voting by Latinos and other marginalized groups. Thus, the absence of mobilizing racial and ethnic groups also contributes to lower voter participation.
Increasing voter participation in this country requires both the elimination of voter suppression tactics and the mobilization of minority voters. This requires the removal of strict voter ID laws, expansion of early voting and mail-in ballots to anyone who requests them, more polling locations to reduce long lines, and greater political mobilization of Latinos. The 2020 election had the highest voter participation rate (66.3%) since 1908 (65.7%). Still, the rates are much lower than those in Australia, where rates are as high as 90%. Increased voter participation in the United States is a necessary step on the road to becoming a truly democratic society.