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Overcoming the Unprecedented: Voters in Deep South battled voter suppression, intimidation and a virus in 2020

The election systems in the Deep South in 2020 suffered from an array of shortcomings, making it harder for many voters – particularly from communities of color – to safely cast their ballots and posing a serious threat to the integrity of our overall democratic system, according to a new report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). 

SPLC researchers found that voting systems were hampered by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, bureaucratic mismanagement and systemic and well-organized efforts to suppress the vote, intimidate voters and spread online disinformation.

Despite these obstacles, Deep South voters were resilient and turned out in record numbers in many parts of the region. The new report – Overcoming the Unprecedented: Southern Voters’ Battle Against Voter Suppression, Intimidation, and a Virus – identifies the policy reforms needed to fortify election systems and ensure that the fundamental right to vote is protected in future elections.

“No state covered in our report did enough to prevent voters from having to choose between their health and their participation in democracy,” said Margaret Huang, SPLC president and CEO. “Making matters worse, lawmakers in the Deep South are ignoring the obvious lessons of the 2020 elections and proposing new legislation designed to make voting even more difficult. They’re justifying these voter suppression proposals with new renditions of old lies about voter fraud.”

The report analyzes elections, related litigation and voter mobilization efforts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi – the five states where the SPLC has offices.

Because of their long histories of voter suppression, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, as well as certain counties in Florida, were previously required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing new voting laws and procedures. That requirement was struck down by a Supreme Court decision in 2013. The report also provides an analysis of the SPLC’s recent lawsuits in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on behalf of Black voters, high-risk voters, voters with disabilities, membership organizations and voter engagement organizations. 

“Our new report makes clear that federal oversight like that included in the ‘For the People Act’ and ‘John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act’ is urgent and essential to strengthening our democracy,” said Nancy Abudu, SPLC deputy legal director. “The structural weaknesses in our election system have long been evident, and the unprecedented obstacles of 2020 should only strengthen the resolve of lawmakers from both parties to take comprehensive action to protect voters and our democracy.”

Fighting against voter suppression

The election in 2020 was the first federal election after legislative changes in Alabama and Louisiana, a popular ballot initiative in Florida and executive clarification in Georgia by the secretary of state – all of which should have expanded the right to vote to many residents with felony convictions. The report found that bureaucratic mismanagement and burdensome hurdles, modern-day poll taxes and unnecessary length of probation and parole still serve as insurmountable barriers for thousands of people in the Deep South with past felony convictions to regain their right to vote. 

Additionally, because the redistricting process historically has been one of the most effective tactics used to disenfranchise Black voters in the South, last year’s virus-disrupted census – purposely undermined by the Trump administration – endangers communities of color even further over the next decade. The SPLC’s report recommends independent redistricting commissions coupled with significant community organizing and input at all levels of government to fight attempts to undermine the collective electoral power of communities of color in the Deep South.

The report also details the SPLC’s on-the-ground efforts across the South. As national campaigns largely ignored elections in significant and important parts of the Deep South, the SPLC – with the support of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta – invested in grassroots organizations doing voter registration, education and mobilization. 

The successful Vote Your Voice initiative empowered communities of color and is providing long-term investment in innovative organizing by Black- and Brown-led groups, as well as census and redistricting activities. The program has already funded projects in all five target states and will administer grants through 2022, with a little over $10 million remaining to distribute of the $30 million set aside from the SPLC’s endowment for the 2020 and 2022 election cycles. Its grantees made at least 75 million total attempts to contact voters in the 2020 cycle and runoffs through phone calls, texting, social media, in-person canvassing and other activities.

Additionally, the SPLC Ballot Curing Program in Georgia contacted thousands of voters directly and helped decrease the rejection rate of absentee ballots by half as compared to the rates in the June primary. The progress came even as disinformation from politicians, the media and right-wing influencers tainted the electoral process.

Improving fairness and equity

2020 was unprecedented in additional ways online, with fears that the high level of online vitriol from the far right before the election, combined with extremist efforts to normalize militia vigilantism, could result in violence at the polls on Election Day. The report found, however, only a few incidents or threats of violence. When and where these incidents occurred, the public and election officials were more prepared than ever before to respond – in part because of the work of groups that study far-right extremism, including the SPLC’s Intelligence Project and the Anti-Defamation League

The manifestation of online disinformation and voter intimidation was most evident on Jan. 6 – when white supremacists, militia members and conspiracy theorists violently attacked the U.S. Capitol – and in the threats local election officials continue to receive today.

“As we saw during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the high level of vitriol from the far right before the election, combined with their efforts to normalize militia vigilantism and political violence and amplify lies about elections, poses a clear and present danger to our democracy,” said Huang. “It is clear that in order to move forward and strengthen our democracy, Congress must pass legislation to sharply improve the fairness and equity of future elections by restoring the Voting Rights Act, reforming campaign finance laws, limiting partisan and prison gerrymandering, curbing racial discrimination, and expanding Americans’ access to the ballot box.”

Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images