On the stage of the first presidential debate, President Trump, warning of unfounded voter fraud, told his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.” In America, voter intimidation has a long, painful history that has mainly targeted low income communities and people of color, complicating their efforts to participate in our democracy. For the most part, federal and state laws created after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have prevented voter intimidation from reaching the levels of the Jim Crow era, but the 2020 election and the troubling rhetoric of the President himself have fueled a resurgence of voter intimidation that could allow for long-lasting erosion of our democracy.
The process of voting has never been easy or fair in the United States. It requires that people take time out of their work days and jump through many hoops just to have their voices heard. Both parties have participated in or turned a blind eye to voter suppression. In the Jim Crow Era, poll taxes and literacy exams existed to suppress poor and Black voters from participating in elections, and today, voter ID laws and felony disenfranchisement actively work to take the right to vote away from citizens. The history of intimidation at the polls is equally as troubling and targeted, including poll watchers who work to challenge minority voters’ legal right to vote or hiring off duty police to watch polls in majority-minority districts.
Despite the historical impact of suppression and intimidation, the upcoming 2020 election reaffirms that American democracy is still under threat. A recent example of this threat comes from my home of Fairfax County, Virginia. As I filled out my absentee ballot from the comfort of my apartment, many voters, due to the outbreak of COVID-19 or worried about overloading the US Postal Service with another mail-in ballot, lined up at the only early voting center in the county to cast their votes. Fairfax County is majority Democrat, and, along with other parts of Northern Virginia, secured Hillary Clinton’s electoral college victory in Virginia in 2016. In 2018, both houses of the state legislature turned majority blue and prioritized fixing voting laws that targeted poor and Black Americans from participating in the voting process. This new legislature expanded absentee voting, made Election Day a state holiday, and extended polling hours to accommodate more people in the voting process.
As voters eagerly waited hours in line to cast their ballots on the second day of early voting, they were met with a crowd of Trump supporters rallying outside the polling place. They were standing 100 feet outside the entrance, chanting “four more years,” waving flags, and revving the engines of their motorcycles in the parking lot, according to the New York Times. Some voters even asked to be escorted out of the center because they felt unsafe at their presence. Though some may argue the Trump supporters were just showing support for their candidate and exercising their First Amendment right to free speech, legislation exists to prevent this from happening. Virginia, in addition to federal legislation, has clear laws against voter intimidation that state: “No person shall conduct himself in a noisy or riotous manner at or about the polls so as to disturb the election.”
The Trump supporters at Fairfax County’s Government Center were in clear violation of this statute, but both sides of the political aisle did not see it that way. When an article came out about the incident, the Virginia GOP’s official twitter account maturely responded to voters’ concerns with “Quick! Someone call the waaaambulance!” Days later on the debate stage, the President virtually endorsed this behavior by instructing his supporters to “watch” polling centers, which will undoubtedly lead to more intimidation as the election continues across the country. And while this is not a new phenomenon, in conjunction with the degradation of mail-in voting and Trump’s inability to state whether or not he will concede if he loses the election, unprecedented challenges arise in the US over the sanctity of free and fair elections.
This uptick in rhetoric endorsing voter intimidation also comes at the crossroads of the first presidential election since 1984 without a consent decree that prevented the Republican National Committee from enforcing “ballot security” measures, such as hiring off-duty law enforcement to target majority-minority polling centers and intimidate voters. The expiration of this decree combined with the rise of false claims of voter fraud will prove to be a challenge to our election process, especially as the President himself has called for law enforcement to show up at the polls in the midst of protest surrounding police brutality against Black Americans, who are most likely to be targeted by this form of intimidation.
While the expiration of the consent decree seriously threatens democracy, it represents only one of the tools of denigration in the Trump Administration’s arsenal. By capitalizing off of hyper-polarization in the country, Trump weaponizes his supporters against democracy, and as a way to consolidate more power. In this way, the 2020 election is as much a referendum on American democracy as the Trump Administration itself. By immediately confronting and rejecting disinformation and intimidation over our elections on either side of the aisle, we can preserve the rights and voice of the people to decide who runs the country. If leaders continue to fear monger and spread disinformation, the country very well might end up back where it was before any voter protection laws existed. By normalizing, through words and actions at the national level, voter suppression and intimidation, we can see the erosion of the most sacred and significant institution that makes up a democracy, leaving the rest of our institutions equally as vulnerable to destruction.
In their book How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe different erosions of democratic norms. An example they mention frequently is when politicians play “constitutional hardball,” which is essentially using every part of the law to defeat partisan rivals, and not caring about whether or not democratic norms are destroyed in the process. In this highly contested and polarized election, the United States is already experiencing this erosion of norms. When people show up to a polling place, break the law, and face no consequences – and one party chalks it up to a political display – we see just how far the idea of constitutional hardball has gone in the United States. Unless both sides of the political spectrum can respect the democratic rules of the games and call out breaches in their own party, we will never achieve full, fair elections. In this sense, the 2020 election simultaneously represents a new challenge and the resurgence of demons ingrained in American society.
The spectacle of Fairfax County had one advantage to those interested in democracy: it was public and unabashed. As the election progresses, counties that are more diverse and have less resources than Fairfax County stand to fall victim to the same treatment, but possibly with a different, more treacherous outcome for our electoral system. When this election ends, it will be up to those in power to make a crucial decision to put the preservation of the right to vote of all people, regardless of race, criminal history, or socioeconomic status at the forefront of our political agenda.