September 18 is National Black Voter Day — here’s how Black Americans still face disproportionate barriers to voting

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Helen T. Crosson, 84, displays her I Voted sticker after voting early for the June 2nd primary at McKinley Technology High School in Ward 5s Eckington neighbourhood on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
  • September 18 is National Black Voter Day.
  • Black Americans still face massive disparities and inequalities in accessing the right to vote 150 years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended the franchise to Black men.
  • Due to ongoing racial disparities in felony charges and convictions, Black Americans are more likely than whites to be disenfranchised due to having a felony record.
  • Black voters also face barriers in many places to registering to vote at all, staying on the voter rolls, and having their mail-in ballots counted.
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Friday, September 18, is National Black Voter Day. As the United States faces a national reckoning over race relations and gears up for a presidential election in 46 days, Black Americans still encounter systemic barriers to equally exercising their right to vote.

Top leaders, including former President Barack Obama, are encouraging people angry about racism in the United States to vote and create change. But Black voters still face hurdles to the ballot box because of the strains on election systems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and racial inequalities in elections that existed long before the virus.

States and municipalities around the country face a tough learning curve in massively scaling up their infrastructure to send out and process a vast influx of mail-in ballots.

In some of the biggest election days since the onset of the pandemic held in June, a similar story played out in cities and precincts with substantial concentrations of Black voters, including Philadelphia, D.C., Baltimore, and the metro Atlanta area.

Overtaxed and underfunded election offices in all those areas struggled to get mail-in ballots out to voters, including those who requested them far in advance. A shortage of poll workers led to far fewer in-person vote centres than in an average election year, creating hours-long lines.

“Communities of colour tend to vote by mail at lesser rates, because of reasons including historical attachment to voting in person, but there are also communities that can’t reliably trust their mail and are not getting good mail service,” Myrna Pérez, Director of the Voting Rights & Elections program at the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University, told Insider in June.

The enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 extended the right to vote to Black men. Black women wouldn’t be allowed to vote until the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, and Black Americans continued to face discrimination in the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, white-only primaries in some Southern states, and outright voter intimidation and violence at the polls for decades.

“When it comes to the Black vote, America is less a story about democracy than it is a story about hypocrisy. And you can date that back to chattel slavery,” Renaldo Pearson, external affairs director at grassroots advocacy organisation RepresentUs, told Insider, citing the 3/5 compromise that gave states with high levels of slave ownership more representation in the electoral college.

The 24th Amendment and the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned many of those racially discriminatory and suppressive voting practices. Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Act required jurisdictions with histories of racially discriminatory voting policies and low registration rates and turnout in recent elections to receive permission, or preclearance, from the Department of Justice before enacting any new voting restrictions.

But in the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the court voted 5-4 to strike down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act that supplied the coverage formula that allowed the Justice Department to enforce the preclearance provision in Section 5.

“The Shelby v. Holder decision gutted the Voting Rights Act and made my generation the first one to witness America become less democratic,” Pearson, a millennial, told Insider.

Since 2013, states that previously had to clear their changes with the Justice Department have had greater reign to enact new laws that have made it harder many to cast a ballot, including restricting early voting, reducing polling places, and enacting restrictions like voter ID laws that can have a disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities.

“One of the big tragedies of Shelby was that it revealed a completely different perception of the world,” Pérez said. “The majority opinion is imaging a world in which racism is largely addressed with, and we can point to the progress and infer from that that we’ve moved far enough…which I think has given the green light to would-be suppressors.”

Many of the factors that make it harder for Black Americans are a direct result of decisions made by Republican legislators in the wake of Shelby.

But as Pearson emphasised, much of the structural racism and inequality in access to the ballot today is deep-rooted and crosses partisan lines. “This is truly systemic, and it’s not specific to the Republican party,” he said.

Georgia voting
People wait in line to vote in Georgia’s Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Dakota, and Nevada are holding primaries amid the coronavirus pandemic. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Here’s how Black Americans and voters of colour face barriers to voting at every step of the process:

  • Black Americans are far more likely not to be able to vote at all due to state restrictions barring people with felony convictions from voting. As of 2019, 10 states permanently ban people with certain convictions from voting unless they proactively appeal to have their rights restored, and 17 states bar people on parole, probation, or both from casting a ballot.

  • Widespread closures of government offices where people either register to vote or obtain the required ID to do so due to COVID-19, in addition to lack of access to online voter registration in some places, have posed new barriers in underserved communities of colour with low registration rates.

    • “Groups that do voter registration drives are limited because of the social distancing requirements, and government agencies like DMVs where people register are not operating,” Pérez said. “Then, you have states that have online registration, but limit it to people who have driver’s licenses or state IDs, which many can’t get right now.”
    • A new study from the non-partisan Centre for Election Innovation & Research found that compared to the same period in 2016, voter registration rates initially plummeted in 11 states since states imposed stay-at-home orders, shut down DMVs, and banned gatherings that could serve as forums for voter registration.
    • “Registration has always been a barrier, and we know this because of the number of people that try to go to vote on election day and find themselves not registered,” Pérez said. “But it’s even worse now, because it’s much harder to register new groups due to all the changes we’ve had to be dealing with from COVID.”
  • Since 2010, over a dozen states have enacted new laws requiring voters to bring a government-issued ID to the polls to vote in person. The rationale behind many of these laws is to prevent in-person voter impersonation, a type of fraud that multiple comprehensive studies have found is extremely rare.

  • Voters of colour face longer wait times to vote than white ones, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic as many polling places in cities have had to consolidate. A recent study from the Brennan Centre found that Black voters wait 45 minutes longer and Latino voters wait 46 minutes longer to vote in-person on average than white voters.

    • Pérez said the study found the most significant racial discrepancies in wait times at polling places in communities with rapidly changing demographics where the government may not be able to keep up with election offices’ need for resources.
    • “As communities get less white and more poor, the state or county is not responding in kind with getting them an equivalent amount of resources,” she said.
  • When a voter goes to vote, they may discover they’re not on the rolls. States routinely engage in voter list maintenance practices that include removing voters who have died, moved, or are otherwise ineligible to vote, an important process to ensure the integrity of US elections. But some more aggressive types of voter purging, in which states remove eligible voters off the rolls with little to no notice or cure process, have disproportionately affected voters in places that used to be covered by the Voting Rights Act.

    • Since the Shelby decision, research conducted by the Brennan Centre found that voter purge rates went up across the country and disproportionately increased in counties that were previously required to receive preclearance under Section 5 of the VRA.
    • The Centre found that 16 million voters were purged between 2014 and 2016, nearly 4 million more than were removed from the rolls between 2006 and 2008. Their research further discovered that the “median purge rate” in places that were previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA was 40% higher than in jurisdictions that were not subject to preclearance under the VRA.
    • “We discovered that the growth has, as a statistical matter, been attributable to places that used to be covered by Section Five,” Pérez explained. “If you were high, you stayed high, but if you increased, you were in a Section Five jurisdiction.”
  • The proportion of voters casting ballots by mail has massively increased due to the pandemic. Mail-in ballots, however, face far higher rejection rates that ballots cast in person, and some studies have found that Black voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected due to problems including a voter’s signature on the ballot not matching a previous signature on file.