Experiencing Voter Suppression for the First Time

“The poll tax, in this election, is time. The poll tax, in this election, is potentially exposing yourself to COVID-19. The poll tax, in this election, is forgoing traditional methods of voting by mail because you are afraid your rights will be trampled.”

Experiencing Voter Suppression for the First Time
Nicole Guidotti-Hernández.

As a Latinx feminist, I always make it a point to vote early and vote in off cycle elections. Those city council, county-wide and off cycle Senate replacements have much power in impacting daily life.

I have voted in California, New York, Massachusetts, Arizona and Texas, with early voting and on election day.

Today was different.

Even with the privileges I have as a light-skinned educated Latinx, I experienced a throwback from 19th Century Post-Reconstruction South voter suppression in the Agnes Scott College Decatur Georgia polling place. We are in the “New Jim Crow” South, to use Michelle Alexander’s words, and the resonance with historic cumulative poll taxes is uncanny.

Upon entering the polling place at 7:05 a.m., there were already 50 people waiting. We had to fill out an initial form stating our intention to vote. We then got in line to have the form verified, with our ID. In the above mentioned states, all one has to do is show ID, sign, then take their automatically generated ballot number to the electronic voting machine and cast the ballot. That is not the case in Georgia.

After my form was checked and my ID validated, I was handed a chip card to insert into the electronic voting machine.

Once marked, a paper ballot was printed. I then had to take the paper ballot to an electronic-lock box that looked like a garbage can to insert the ballot and generate a code stating that the vote had been cast.

Why not submit votes electronically? Why have a machine intake a paper ballot that looks like a trash can? Why make us fill out forms and then cast electronically to generate a paper? What if the paper gets damaged? Will the votes be null?

Experiencing Voter Suppression for the First Time
A long line to cast ballots at the Agnes Scott College polling place in Decatur, Ga. on Oct. 12 (Nicole Guidotti-Hernández)

In chatting with an African American man in his 60’s, we discussed how he had never seen a more confusing form for early voting, the number of ID checks, nor the lines and lack of efficiency in this highly Democrat-registered precinct. He has voted in this same precinct for years and had never seen such an elaborately orchestrated series of hoops to jump through.

We expressed outrage at the fact that the ballot was designed for voters to intentionally have their marks disqualified by missing the fine print of writing in the election date. He shook his head and told me that he also has voted in other states and this was an abomination.

Experiencing Voter Suppression for the First Time
The Dekalb County, Ga., ballot was seemingly designed for voters to miss the fine print of writing in the election date.

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After 45 minutes, I was able to cast my vote. The level of stress this election cycle has been exacerbated by a white supremacist misogynist president who claims that mail-in ballots from blue states are a fraud—only as a pre-emptive measure to stall a potential election loss and force quarantining Democrats to the polls.

While Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tries to suppress votes by limiting the number of absentee ballot drop boxes, it is evident that Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, along with Gov. Kemp, are invested in disqualifying ballots.

Small details like not filling in the correct date of the election, written in fine print, could be cause for nullification. One voter who works on document design elements noted to other voters in line that an intentional bad design could nullify the document’s validity.

While I was waiting to vote, five absentee ballots were surrendered in favor of voting in-person—showing how Trump and the Republican party have used historic tactics to disenfranchise voters and instilling fear in the electorate by having us risk our health to have our vote counted.

While I was uplifted by the fact that the poll workers were entirely African American, it was disheartening to know that they, as African Americans have always done in the South, risked their lives for the vote. This time, however, those poll workers—almost all senior citizens—put themselves as double risk by potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19.

To clarify: I must recognize the honor and integrity of the poll workers on site, despite their laboring in an unfair system. This account is not an examination of them or the voters, but rather the state’s historic inequality.

And the more I spoke with people at the polling site, the more I realized that in attempting to register to vote two times unsuccessfully, the system in Georgia was set up this way and always has been. Georgia didn’t abolish its poll tax until 1945. We still feel the reverberations of white southerners, this time conservative Republicans, who carry the burning torch of what the 15th Amendment represents, in giving Black men the right to vote in 1870.

As historian Martha S. Jones, has argued in her book Vanguard, about Black women’s fight for full voting rights, “without the vote, Black Americans had to build other routes to political power” because “the same poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, and violence that hampered their husbands, fathers and sons now beset Black women’s lives.”

In the South, Black women were excluded from voting longer than men. Long after Reconstruction and Jim Crow, feminist texts (like the 1970 Combahee River Collective statement about the mainstream women’s movement and radical Black power movements’ inadequacies in excluding Black Lesbians and Black women more broadly, and the differential violence they experienced in urban centers), codified the intersections of sex, violence and exclusion in ways that resonate with today’s Black Lives Matter Movement and Republican attempts at voter suppression.

Today, at this polling site, there was a visceral reminder that local governments were once again obstructing that right. Even though African Americans make up 31 percent of the state’s population and Hispanics at 8.8 percent, they, like me, are double- and triple-verified in the act of voting.

In Georgia, everyone is double- and triple-verified. The process is daunting. It is difficult. Like many voters with high risk health conditions, I curbed my anxiety after waiting so long to get registered by going to the polls.

The poll tax, in this election, is time. The poll tax, in this election, is potentially exposing yourself to COVID-19. The poll tax, in this election, is forgoing traditional methods of voting by mail because you are afraid your rights will be trampled.

We paid the tax at the polling place, just like ancestors did before in Georgia. Now we anxiously await a future that will either be filled with more misogynist anti-Black violence, or a return to the value of difference as the very fabric of our democracy.

How to Handle Modern Voter Suppression

Especially in the aftermath of Trump’s call for his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” voters may face illegal intimidation tactics, in addition to the administrative obstacles that have plagued American elections for centuries.

If you are threatened, intimidated or coerced while voting or waiting in line, call the Election Protection hotline at 1-866-678-8683. The hotline can also help if voters are lied to about additional voting requirements, or suspect that non-qualified individuals are impersonating election officials.

In the instance that a registered voter is told they’re not on the voter roll, call the Election Protection hotline after confirming registration at the given location.

Use this link to check your voter registration status, and click here to ensure you’ve visited the correct polling place.

Take Action

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Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández is a professor at Emory and Charles Warren fellow at Harvard. She received her doctorate degree from Cornell University in English, with a graduate minor in Latina/o studies in 2004. She is the author of Unspeakable Violence: Narratives of Citizenship Mourning and Loss in Chicana/o and U.S. Mexico National Imaginaries.