(Photo Credit: Robert Wilson via Adobe Stock)

Human rights activist and lecturer Loung Ung once said “Voting is not only our right, it is our power. When we vote, we take back our power to choose, to speak up, and to stand with those who support us and each other.”

As we get closer and closer to the 2020 U.S. elections, I’ve personally gone through a series of questions surrounding the purpose of my vote. I assume others have done the same at some juncture or another in their adult lives. This qnotes’ series was meant to spark interest in politics and engage people to vote in upcoming elections as we examined the efforts of non-profit LGBTQ organizations to mobilize our community.

We have looked at the birth of LGBTQ politics in the wake of McCarthyism and how gay men and lesbians inserted themselves into the political conversation after the Stonewall Uprising. We examined the emergence of early organizing in the community and how the Human Rights Campaign has grown its formidable “Equality Voter” model.

Voting is a key part of our defined participation in society, and as Ung says provides a chance for us to “take back our power.” But, what exactly does it mean to different people in our community? How does participation vary and how is it suppressed based on race and gender identity? What is being done to ensure that when members of our community “speak up” they can actually vote, especially when there’s a global health pandemic at our doorstep?

Martha S. Jones, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality,” has said that our history is more one of voter suppression than of voting rights. “Today our voting rights are compromised by ID requirements, curtailed access to polling places, and the purging of voters’ rolls,” said Jones in a recent interview in the university’s Arts & Sciences Magazine.

Voter Suppression

In September, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) signed on to support Stacey Abrams’ voter protection initiative, Fair Fight 2020. Alphonso David, president of the HRC, told The Washington Post, “Voter suppression has primarily targeted voters of color, who also happen to include LGBTQ Americans, who far too often face disproportionate barriers in accessing their right to vote.”

Fair Fight was launched by Abrams following the 2018 Georgia elections where her battle in the gubernatorial race shined a “bright light on the issue with elections that were rife with mismanagement, irregularities, unbelievably long lines, and more, exposing both recent and also decades-long actions and inactions by the state to thwart the right to vote,” according to the organization’s website.

One of the major issues in Georgia was the implementation of voter purges which shrunk the voter roll by more than 300,000 in December, threatening to redefine the 2020 election, according to critics. Proponents say that it was aimed at those who have recently died, but a lawsuit filed to halt the purge reports that more than 120,000 of the names were people who hadn’t voted since 2012. Prior to Abrams defeat in 2018, her opponent led a historic single-day voter purge, cutting more than a half million people from the rolls, with an estimated 107,000 because they hadn’t voted in prior elections, according to an American Media investigation. These purges often target communities of color.

In 2016, three North Carolina counties were found guilty of purging between 3,500 and 4,000 voters in what’s referred to as “voter caging,” whereby groups target certain communities by sending out mass direct mailings to registered voters that cannot be forwarded to a new address. According to The Center for American Progress, “African-Americans made up 65 percent of those targeted in Beaufort County, even though they accounted for less than 26 percent of the county’s population.”

Fair Fight is ready with teams in 18 battleground states and a long list of initiatives to fight voter suppression as we near the 2020 election. In a recent national media call, Abrams pointed out that the organization and its supporters are prepared earlier than in previous cycles. That’s important and likely intensified by the presence of COVID-19. “What we face as a nation is not partisan,” said Abrams. “It is an attack on all of us that’s going to make it difficult to have safe and accessible elections without Congressional action.”

This includes a call from Fair Fight Action in a joint letter to Congress requesting $4 billion dollars to make our elections secure. The letter includes five key priorities: expanding vote-by-mail options, including no-excuse absentee voting; the extension of in-person early voting to reduce long lines and allow people multiple weeks to cast their ballots; ensuring safe and accessible polling places for those without easy access to mail-in voting; expanding online and same-day voter registration; and the education of voters about their options in November.

Abrams explains that when you extend options like vote-by-mail, you’re making it safer for those who don’t have that access to vote in-person at the polls. It is important that states also don’t force a reduction in polling places and Abrams is requesting a “no hassle” registration process for anyone who has been removed from the rolls previously.

Voter ID laws

Congress has already allocated $400 million in election assistance funding to states. Even in the unlikely chance that more funds, especially the $4 billion request, would be approved, there are efforts like voter ID laws that still disproportionately affect the LGBTQ community.

A recent press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states: “But across the U.S., too many politicians are passing measures making it harder to cast a ballot. The goal is to manipulate political outcomes, and the result is a severely compromised democracy that doesn’t reflect the will of the people.”

Thirty-six states have identification requirements at the polls. South Carolina is one of seven states that require voters to present one of a limited set of government-issued photo IDs, and one of 14 states that imposed tougher restrictions since 2010. North Carolina does not currently require a photo ID to vote, but only after a 2016 ruling by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a law that included voter ID restrictions, the elimination of same-day voter registration and a cutback on early voting.

Over 21 million U.S. citizens do not have government-issued photo identification, according to the ACLU. “That’s because ID cards aren’t always accessible for everyone.” Transgender citizens face additional obstacles. According to a report by the Williams Institute, approximately 40 percent of the nearly 1 million transgender adults estimated to be eligible to vote do not have IDs that reflect their correct name and/or gender.

Lucas Acosta, national press secretary for campaigns at HRC, pointed out that organizations have to also work to train poll workers. “The discrepancies in a lot of these voter ID states, between laws allowing people to use gender markers and change names in easier ways so that both their name on the voting rolls and their ID that they go to the polls with are substantively similar to their identity, is important so that poll workers don’t cause problems for them,” says Acosta.

The National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund is also working to protect transgender voters. The political arm of the well-known non-profit has created the TRANSform The Vote project which encourages voter registration and provides resources to guide transgender people through the process of voting.

“Transgender voters are not doing anything wrong or trying to deceive you — they are just being themselves,” states its #VotingWhileTrans Guide in directions for poll workers and election officials.

In the next issue, qnotes will wrap up our series with the introduction to an online voting resource to help you navigate the system, and we’ll talk to local organizations about efforts underway in getting out the vote in our region.

This project has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, solutionsjournalism.org.