Donald Trump’s offensive statements and the chaos they’ve brought to the Republican Party have been the headline-grabbing events of this election. But the biggest story, which is regularly overlooked, is the systematic disenfranchisement of millions of American voters, predominantly African Americans and Latinos.
Since sections of the Voting Rights Act were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, 14 states have introduced new voting restrictions in this election, and this represents only a sliver of the seismic crisis facing our democracy in this presidential race. Some estimates anticipate that roughly 1.3 million voters in vital swing states could be disenfranchised because of these new voting restrictions.
Additionally, more than 6 million Americans will be barred from voting due to felony convictions, and 2.2 million of those are African American. This amounts to 1 out of every 13 African Americans of voting age being barred from the ballot box. And in Florida, 23 percent of African Americans are prevented from voting due to felony convictions even after they’ve done their time.
Seven states—Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, and Wisconsin—that will have new voting restrictions in 2016 also recorded their highest levels of African-American voter turnout in 2008. And five of those states—Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia—plus Alabama, Tennessee, and South Dakota have witnessed their largest Hispanic population growth from 2000-2010. NALEO—the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials—estimates that new voter ID laws will effectively disenfranchise 875,000 Latino voters this year.
In other words, the influence of minority voters has increased a lot during Barack Obama’s presidency. So it’s no mere coincidence that many Republican-controlled states have instituted these policies.
It’s also no surprise that vital swing states under Republican control—Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida—will be the worst states for minority voters. Texas, which is not a swing state but has a rapidly growing Latino population, will also be especially bad.
Both Texas and North Carolina have passed voter ID laws that have been blocked and/or softened by court rulings, and yet state officials continue to challenge these decisions and implement restrictions that would disenfranchise minorities.
“The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” wrote Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, regarding North Carolina’s voter ID law and other voter suppression tactics.
After that ruling, Republican North Carolina legislators have still attempted to ban early voting on Sundays and cut voting hours and sites in areas with large minority populations. Texas Republicans have also continued to distribute fliers intent on intimidating Texans from voting despite court orders to stop.
And to make matters worse, the Justice Department interprets the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder as applying to the federal election observer program, and as a result has drastically reduced the program. For more than 50 years, America has relied on this program to combat voter suppression at the polls, yet in 2016 it will be almost nonexistent. Minority voters in Texas and North Carolina will have fewer protections and recourses to ensure that they can exercise their franchise, despite both states clearly showing a disregard for the law as they implement voter suppression measures.
Ohio, in addition to implementing new voter ID requirements, has been purging registered voters at an alarming rate due to a state law that mandates the revoking of a voter’s registration, without notification, if they have not voted in the last six years. Over the last five years, 2 million people have been removed from the voting rolls. In 2015 alone, 200,000 voters were removed in Ohio’s 20 most populous counties, including 40,000 in Cuyahoga County, which has many African-American voters.
For those African-American voters in Ohio who voted for Obama in 2008 but stayed at home in 2012, they could find themselves barred from voting in this election unless they register to vote again.
Florida also has a long history of using voter purges to manipulate elections, but one of the biggest threats in this election may simply be the mismanagement of voting sites that result in chaos on Election Day. In 2012, it was estimated that multi-hour waits at polling locations resulted in 200,000 voters not casting ballots. Additionally, Florida has as a track record of mistakenly preventing citizens from voting if their name matches that of a convicted felon.
Wisconsin may be one of the more surprising yet increasingly troubling states for minority voters. Not only has it implemented new strict voter ID requirements, but also it has failed to provide residents with the required ID to vote.
VoteRiders has accompanied Wisconsin voters to DMVs across the state and recorded instances where voters have been denied the necessary voting ID despite providing the required documentation.
“It should not be on the advocacy group or on the individual voter to have to keep fighting through barrier after barrier to cast their ballot,” said Liz Kennedy, the director of government and democratic reform at the Center for American Progress. “This is the right that protects all of our other rights.”
Each one of these states demonstrates that the intent and implementation of their voting restrictions are far more severe and damaging than they let on. And they show the increased necessity of election observers and activists who now must fill the void left by the federal government. But after Shelby, the federal government is less capable of protecting our right to vote.
The Black Lives Matter movement has peacefully combated police brutality by incorporating video and audio recordings to document injustices. In this election, minority voters should do the same—people should film the long lines, the ballot challenges, and the acts of intimidation so America can see for itself the electoral obstacles we face that undermine the very fabric of our democracy.