The Midterms and the Battle for the Ballot

People across the country will have the chance to sound off on voting rights at the ballot box in November: Ballot measures in North Carolina and Arkansas will determine whether the states enact voter ID laws; voters in Michigan and Maryland will be asked to decide on a measure that would eliminate voter registration deadlines; and Floridians will vote on whether felons should have the right to vote after serving their sentences.

But with one of the most important elections in a generation less than a month away, lawmakers in some states are mounting desperate, last-minute attempts to silence the voices of their constituents.

Voters in various states are facing blatant attacks on their access to the ballot in advance of a critical election. (Kim Creative Commons)

A controversial law that would make it nearly impossible for many Native American voters to cast their ballots on election day in North Dakota came before the Supreme Court this week. The Native American Rights Fund filed Brakebill v. Jaeger in 2016 to challenge the voter ID law, which would require voters in the state to present proof of identification and residential address at the polls. Because “the U.S. postal service does not provide residential delivery in rural Indian communities,” the organization explained, they often register using postal boxes as their physical addresses, which will no longer qualify as residential addresses under the law.

Voter ID laws in states across the country disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, college students, older people, people with disabilities and low-income people. HB 1369 is no different. Lawmakers in North Dakota ramped up their efforts to pass such laws soon after Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s narrow victory in 2012; she won her seat in that race by 3,000 votes, largely due to the strong support she received from indigenous communities.

NARF challenged the law on the grounds that it violated the Equal Protection Clause and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Federal District Court Judge Daniel Hovland blocked the provision of the law pertaining to proof of address in April, writing in his judgment that “the State has acknowledged that Native American communities often lack residential street addresses” and concluding that “this is a clear ‘legal obstacle’ inhibiting the opportunity to vote.” On October 9, however, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision which ignores the challenges to that provision—effectively permitting lawmakers to silence tens of thousands of indigenous voters. 

“70,000 North Dakota residents lack a qualifying ID… and 18,000 North Dakota residents also lack supplemental documentation sufficient to permit them to vote without a qualifying ID,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her dissent. She concluded that “the risk of disfranchisement is large.”

In Georgia, a similar attack on the voting rights of communities of color is underway, led by Brian Kemp, the current Secretary of State and candidate for governor. Kemp’s new “No Match, No Vote” policy requires that any information in a voter’s registration application matches existing state records in their file exactly; under this statute, even a middle initial where a middle name once was or a dropped hyphen from a last name would disqualify someone from registering. 

As a result of Kemp’s policy, 53,000 voter applications are on hold. Seventy percent of them are from Black voters, even though they only make up 32 percent of the state’s population. 

“Brian Kemp is maliciously wielding the power of his office,” Abigail Collazo, Director of Strategic Communication for Kemp’s rival, Stacey Abrams, said in a statement, “to suppress the vote for political gain and silence the voices of thousands of eligible voters, the majority of them people of color.” If elected, Abrams would be the first Black female governor in U.S. history; her victory in the state’s gubernatorial primaries was proof of the power Black women voters, in particular, wield in her state.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCR) has filed a lawsuit declaring that Kemp’s policy is in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act and the first and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution. “Kemp has been a driving force behind multiple voter suppression efforts throughout the years in Georgia,” Kristen Clarke, the Committee president and executive director, asserted in a statement. “We will continue fighting voter suppression to ensure a level playing field for voters across Georgia this election cycle.”

Members of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance and other voter’s rights advocates gathered Friday to in support of the Committee lawsuit and in protest of Kemp’s discriminatory policy. “This is a blatant attempt by Secretary Kemp to disenfranchise Black voters across the state,” National Domestic Workers Alliance Deputy Political Director Nikema Williams told the crowd outside the Georgia State Capitol. “It is disgraceful, and we all must stand up and demand that these registrations be processed swiftly so all Georgians can exercise their right to vote in the upcoming election.”

The LCCR, in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Florida, has also launched a similar lawsuit in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael, which hit the state’s coastline on October 9—killing 13 and leaving 1.4 million without power four days before its voter registration deadline. 

“Voters should not have to risk their lives in order to register to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, a Senior Staff Attorney on the Voting Rights Project with the ACLU, said in a statementThe groups filed a federal lawsuit seeking an extension of the deadline nationwide and arguing that Governor Rick Scott’s refusal to do so violates the fourteenth amendment. They also noted that, given a similar situation that occurred when Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, it is likely that tens of thousands of people will register if the deadline is extended

Much is at stake in this year’s midterm elections—and the voices of voters will be critical in shaping the future of the country. It’s only fair that each and every U.S. citizen have the chance to be heard in 2018.

Victoria Sheber is an editorial intern at Ms., a debate instructor at Windward School and a member of the JusticeCorps at the Los Angeles Superior Court. Victoria is currently a senior at UCLA studying American Literature & Culture and History; she is also the President of the American Association of University Women chapter on campus and Assistant Section Editor for Fem Newsmagazine. She loves to read and write about feminist literature. 

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