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Southern States Made It Harder to Vote in 2020

March 19, 2021 by Dan McCue
Heather King waits in line at State Farm Arena, Georgia's largest early voting location, to cast her ballot during the first day of early voting in the general election on October 12, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Early voting in Georgia runs from October 12-30. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images/TNS)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Election systems in the Deep South in 2020 suffered from numerous shortcomings, making it harder for many voters — particularly those from communities of color — to safely cast their ballots, states a new analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The report found that state voting systems that were already challenged by the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic were also plagued by bureaucratic mismanagement  and systematic and well-organized efforts to suppress  the vote, intimidate voters and spread online disinformation.

The authors mince no words in saying all of these factors combined to pose a serious threat to the integrity of the entire democratic system.

But they also found that despite these barriers, voters across the Deep South were resilient and turned out in many parts of the region in record numbers.

“No state covered in our report did enough to prevent voters from having to choose between their health and their participation in democracy,” said Margaret Huang, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s president and CEO.

“Making matters worse, lawmakers in the Deep South are ignoring the obvious lessons of the 2020 elections and proposing new legislation designed to make voting even more difficult,” she said. “They’re justifying these voter suppression proposals with new renditions of old lies about voter fraud.”

Republican lawmakers in 40 states have proposed 253 laws that would change election procedures in those states, many saying that they are trying to restore confidence in the process.

The report, “Overcoming the Unprecedented: Southern Voters’ Battle Against Voter Suppression, Intimidation, and a Virus,” analyzes elections, related litigation, and voter mobilization efforts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi – the five states where the Southern Poverty Law Center has offices.  

Because of their long histories of voter suppression, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, as well as certain counties in Florida, were previously required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to receive approval from the U.S. Justice Department before implementing new voting laws and procedures. 

That requirement was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. 

“Our new report makes clear that federal oversight like that included in the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is urgent and essential to strengthen our democracy,” said Nancy Abudu, the organization’s deputy legal director. 

“The structural weaknesses in our election have long been evident, and the unprecedented obstacles of 2020 should only strengthen the resolve of lawmakers from both parties to take comprehensive action to protect voters and our democracy,” she said.

The election in 2020 was the first federal election after legislative changes in Alabama and Louisiana, a popular ballot initiative in Florida, and executive clarification in Georgia by the secretary of state – all of which should have expanded the right to vote to many residents in the state with felony convictions. 

However, the authors found that mismanagement of the process of restoring the right to vote, modern-day poll taxes, and the unnecessary length of probation and parole still served as insurmountable barriers for many in the Deep South with past felony convictions to regain their voting rights. 

The report doesn’t just focus on the past, and it has some bracing things to say about the future, particularly when it comes to the decennial redistricting process that’s about to get under way.

Redistricting has been one of the most effective tactics used to disenfranchise Black voters in the South, the Law Center says.

And last year’s virus-disrupted census – which was further undermined by the Trump administration – endangers communities of color even further over the next decade, the study says. 

The authors recommend independent redistricting commissions coupled with significant community organizing and input at all levels of government to fight attempts to undermine the collective electoral power of communities of color in the Deep South.

Like many other commentators, the Southern Poverty Law Center also delves into the pernicious impact of social and online media on the election.

According to the law center, the high level of online vitriol from the far right, combined with extremist efforts to normalize militia vigilantism, stoked fears of widespread violence at  the polls on Election Day.

The authors found, however, that relatively few violent incidents actually occurred.

Instead, the manifestation of all that online disinformation and voter intimidation occurred several weeks after the election, during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by white supremacists, militia members, and other violent extremists.

More than 140 people were injured in the attack and five people died.

“As we saw during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the high level of vitriol from the far right … combined with their efforts to normalize political violence and amplify lies about elections, poses a clear and present danger to our democracy,” Huang said. “It is clear that in order to move forward and strengthen our democracy, Congress must pass legislation to sharply improve the fairness and equity of future elections by restoring the Voting Rights Act, reforming campaign finance laws, limiting partisan and prison gerrymandering, curbing racial discrimination, and expanding Americans’ access to the ballot box.”

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