As Election Day 2020 came to a close, many news outlets characterized the voting process as relatively problem free and lacking in “major disruptions.” While seemingly encouraging, in reality this characterization could not be further from the truth—especially for Black voters, who were forced to repeatedly endure and overcome relentless obstacles designed to stop them from exercising their right to vote in our democracy.
Beyond the sheer, commendable will of these voters to cast their ballots, it took a legion of civil rights lawyers, activists, and volunteers to combat egregious voter suppression tactics in order to make Black voters’ already hurdle-laden path to the ballot box slightly less cumbersome. This reality should shame our country. And it cannot stand.
One of the most telling lessons of this election is that our voting system is fundamentally broken. The future of our country unequivocally depends on our ability to reform this system, as we are a democracy in name only if we continue to readily inhibit Black voters from exercising their critical constitutional right.
Despite one of the highest voter turnouts in the history of this country, examples abound that illustrate the deeply rooted problems with America’s voting system. The civil rights Election Protection hotline received nearly 32,000 calls on Election Day alone. Reports from the Voting Rights Defender and Prepared to Vote project teams at my organization, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., revealed the depth and breadth of the issues faced by Black voters.
First, these reports indicated that voter intimidation was experienced at polling places in all 10 states we monitored for suppressive tactics, including multiple incidents in Florida during the early voting period. Armed supporters of President Donald Trump were present at multiple polling sites on Election Day in Florida, North Carolina, and Louisiana—a particularly foreboding image for Black voters, who have endured harrowing violence at the polls throughout this country’s history.
Moreover, outside of a polling location in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, an old state flag containing the Confederate emblem was flown, confronting voters with a symbol of white supremacy and racism as they sought to cast their ballots. And, in Autauga County, Alabama, one of our nonpartisan poll monitor volunteers who was evaluating polling place accessibility was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy and threatened with arrest if she returned to her rightful, legal duties.
Beyond these egregious attempts to intimidate Black voters and those safeguarding their rights, voter suppression tactics were also employed in myriad other ways. In countless states, voters—who already had to risk COVID-19 exposure when they headed to the polls—were forced to wait in line for hours to cast their ballots, increasing their exposure risk, as well as subjecting them to cold, hunger, and discomfort. In Alabama, two elderly voters fainted while waiting in lengthy lines—despite this, they refused to leave their polling place until they had cast their ballots.
Let this be clear: Long lines at polling places and early voting sites are not an inevitability. They are a result of voter suppression and deliberate neglect of our voting system that disproportionately affects voters of color. According to a recently published study, residents of entirely Black neighborhoods waited 29 percent longer to vote in the 2016 election—and were 74 percent more likely to spend more than half an hour at their polling places. We will undoubtedly see similar metrics once comparative wait times from this election are analyzed.
It could have been much worse. That so many polls were open despite the pandemic must be attributed in good measure to the extraordinary effort led by LeBron James’ More Than a Vote, which partnered with LDF to sign up tens of thousands of new poll workers.
Voters also had to overcome obstacles to mail-in voting, which played a more prominent role than ever in this election due to the pandemic. States relentlessly erected or maintained barriers to make it more difficult for individuals to cast their ballots. Despite trial court decisions finding that these barriers burdened the right to vote for Black voters and disabled voters, appellate courts turned back these decisions.
LDF remains embroiled in litigation against the United States Postal Service, challenging mail delivery changes made by its leadership early this summer that resulted in the late delivery of absentee ballots across the country.
LDF and co-counsel sued the USPS, as did several states, and multiple court rulings were issued ordering the agency to suspend these changes and prioritize election mail. Yet, problems with the USPS persisted.
On the morning of Election Day, a United States District Court judge ordered the USPS to sweep 12 facilities that process ballots for 15 different states after receiving reports that more than 300,000 ballots across the country could not be traced. USPS leadership defied this court order, necessitating multiple hearings and additional orders from the court to address the issue.
In addition to these already substantial hurdles, voters endured misinformation campaigns on Election Day, including robocalls directed at voters in the predominately Black city of Flint, Michigan, recommending that they vote the day after the election. Voters also encountered confusing signage, last-minute polling place changes, parking problems due to overcrowded facilities, and malfunctioning voting machines that deleted or changed their votes.
This never-ending list of problems characterizes what was described as a relatively standard Election Day in America. For Black voters, this “standard” equates to a perennial battle against old and new ways that their country is trying to strip them of their right to vote. It is a deplorable stain on our democracy that cannot continue.
There’s a heroic story to be told in this election. It is about the courage and resilience of Black voters and the networks of organizations that worked to protect the vote. This election laid bare the extreme urgency with which we must undertake serious, comprehensive voting system reforms. Anything less is an unacceptable affront to Black voters, who are entitled to have their voices heard, fully and unencumbered.