Thursday, April 18, 2024

Occupy movement protesters make their message known on a Milwaukee overpass in 2014. (Photo: Joe Brusky via Flickr)

A month ago, I went back to my hometown of Cambridge from Northeastern University, walked into my old middle school and voted for the first time. My ballot was cast within five minutes, and I put my “I voted” sticker proudly onto my jacket. Unfortunately, voting in this midterm election was not so easy for many in this country. Voter suppression is happening, and it is happening to minorities. 

In North Dakota, a new voter ID law requires residents to have identification showing a current street address to vote – leaving out tens of thousands of voters including many Native Americans who use post offices boxes as their address. The Supreme Court upheld this law only a month before Election Day, leaving little time to figure out a solution. The law was put in place by Republicans controlling state government where Natives tend to vote as Democrats, and Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota’s Democratic senator, lost the election.

Similarly, residents of Dodge City, Kansas, which is 59 percent Latino, had a harder time voting in the midterms. The only place polling place for Dodge City’s 13,000 registered voters was moved from a downtown location to outside of town, more than a mile from public transportation. That was expected to disproportionately affect Latinos who “don’t have flexible work schedules that will allow them to travel there,” CNN said. The American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit to have a more convenient polling place opened but, five days before Election Day, a judge denied it. 

Nowhere in the country was voter suppression in the midterms more evident than Georgia, where Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a white man (who oversees elections in Georgia), ran against Stacey Abrams, an African-American woman. Georgia has a law that requires information on handwritten voter registrations to exactly match information on other state records; it resulted in 53,000 voter registrations being held up, 70 percent reportedly from black voters, The Hill reported In addition, Kemp’s office removed more than 1.4 million people from voter rolls since 2010, including more than 100,000 in 2017 because they hadn’t voted in a previous election. Lawsuits in the past two years claim that most people removed from voter rolls are of color. After being urged to step down as secretary of state because it was a conflict of interest to make rules for the governor’s election while running for governor, Kemp finally has stepped down – to begin his transition to governor.

Despite all this, some might say voter suppression is not real. After all, voter turnout in Georgia was far higher than in other recent midterm elections, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Native American voter turnout in North Dakota increased dramatically compared to previous midterms, according to the Center for Public Integrity. And voters in Dodge City got to the polls too, USA Today reported. Turnout for the midterms was high – almost 50 percent of eligible voters voted, compared with 36.7 percent and 41 percent of eligible voters in 2014 and 2010, respectively, NPR reported. In fact, turnout was the highest since 1966.

But that doesn’t mean voter suppression didn’t happen. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, since Shelby County v. Holder, a Supreme Court decision in 2013 that weakened the Voting Rights Act, disenfranchisement efforts have increased, making up to 2 million more people ineligible to vote and giving 23 more restrictive voting laws. (And a 50 percent voter turnout still means that 50 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote.)

As citizens, we must do everything in our power to make sure voting rights are not limited. We must support laws that expand voting rights; we must support organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union that bring lawsuits fighting voter suppression; we must support organizers such as the students from Parkland, Florida, who this past summer helped register people to vote. On a smaller but no less important scale, we can talk to friends, neighbors and families about the importance of voting and be willing to help them if they need a ride to the polls or help filling out registration forms.

As a Cantabrigian, I realize that I must take advantage of how easy it is to exercise my right to vote. I urge others who have it just as easy to take advantage too – to fight against the effect of voter suppression and stand in solidarity with those whose own states put unnecessary laws in place to make keep them from hitting the poles.

Cambridge native Sarah Whiteman is a student of psychology and politics at Northeastern University.