How Voter Suppression Led to Grown Adults Making Escape Plans and Buying Guns
Signage for ballots with errors is seen in a warehouse at the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections headquarters on October 7, 2020 in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

How Voter Suppression Led to Grown Adults Making Escape Plans and Buying Guns

A century and a half…

Earlier this week, I was going through my normal morning routine — drinking iced coffee, looking out the window, settling my mind for the day ahead — when my phone rang with the first work call of the morning. After exchanging pleasantries, the man on the other end dropped a bomb of a question on me: “What’s your escape plan to get out of New York City on election night?”

I knew people had been mentioning this in jest, but nothing in his voice spoke to his question being anything but serious. I didn’t have an answer, but he did: a multiple-point plan that would land him far from the city after early voting. As we discussed what might happen on Election Day, the possibilities went from the unlikely to the unthinkable; then again, with President Donald Trump calling unauthorized poll watchers his “Trump Army” and telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” the unthinkable is now plausible. I felt a surge of uneasy energy, and it wasn’t just from the iced coffee — it was the adrenaline that came with wondering if I needed to plan for that kind of chaos.

The phone rang again. Second call of the day. After exchanging pleasantries, I told this man about the call I’d just finished and asked if he — not a New Yorker — had an escape plan. “No,” he said, “but for the first time, I’m buying a gun. If Biden wins, I’ll return it; if Trump wins, I’ll hold onto it for a few more years.” The resolve in his voice gave me serious pause. The coldness was unnerving. What I was sensing from both men wasn’t fear but the intention to be ready for whatever may come. And that gave me fear.

We are in the moment where voter suppression has become voter intimidation. We are in the moment where waiting for election results can turn into civil unrest.

The question of voter suppression was introduced in 1870 when the 15th Amendment — “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” — was ratified. Yet Congress did not enforce it immediately, and Tennessee did not ratify it until 1997. (Yes, 127 years later.) Even with the 15th Amendment, states passed Jim Crow laws to prevent Black people from voting. The poll tax, essentially a voting fee, began in the 1890s as a legal way to keep Black Americans from voting in Southern states. Eligible voters were required to pay their poll tax before they could cast a ballot. This didn’t simply discourage the economically disadvantaged from voting: Because it was a prerequisite to register to vote in Jim Crow states, it made voting all but impossible.

And today we are seeing a modern-day poll tax through a policy that has been recently enacted in the state of Florida. In the 2018 midterm election, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, which restored voting rights for people who had completed their sentence for prior felony convictions (those convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses not included). Florida’s Republican-led legislature responded by passing a law requiring people convicted of a felony to pay all outstanding legal financial obligations before their sentence could be considered complete. After a long legal battle, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last month to uphold that law — a decision that will prevent 770,000 people in Florida from voting, with low-income and disadvantaged populations disproportionately affected. In other words, exactly the same outcome as with the poll tax of the 1890s.

And for those who believe that racism doesn’t exist and that we should move on from race-based conversation, think about this: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia still had poll taxes in 1964, right before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even further, another pattern should emerge as the aforementioned states are red, Republican-controlled states (though Virginia has been trending purple as of late.)

Of that group, Texas has emerged as the clear leader in voter suppression. Earlier this month, under the guise of “election security,” Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide proclamation limiting each of the state’s 254 counties to a single site for absentee ballot drop-off. The League of Women Voters of Texas, National League of United Latin American Citizens, and the League of United Latin American Citizens have sued Abbott over this change, explaining that it puts an unreasonable burden on voters during the pandemic. Elderly folks and those with disabilities would be risking more exposure to Covid-19 by being forced to travel long distances or vote in person. Many would have to drive over an hour to a drop-off box; some counties measure 6,000 square miles.

“Harris County is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and we’re supposed to have 1 site?” asked Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Twitter recently. “This isn’t security, it’s suppression. Mail ballot voters shouldn’t have to drive 30 miles to drop off their ballot, or rely on a mail system that’s facing cutbacks.”

According to Democracy Diverted, a recent study from The Leadership Education Fund examining polling closures since 2013, almost half of all shuttered polling places have taken place in Texas, where voters have lost at least 750 polling places. Most of these closures (590) took place after the 2014 midterm election. The counties with the biggest losses were Dallas (74), which is 41% Latino and 22% Black; Travis (67), which is 34% Latino; and Harris (52), which is 42% Latino and 19% Black.

These drastic reductions occurred against a backdrop of multiple court battles over state laws that discriminate against Black and Latino voters. These laws relate to electoral processes ranging from voter identification requirements, racial gerrymandering to prevent voters of color from electing their preferred candidates, purging voters from registration lists, and access to language assistance when voting.

This is why we can’t let the suppression tactics win. This is why we must push through the discomfort and vote. Vote in numbers. Vote in pairs. Vote downballot, especially.

Texas isn’t the exception. Black Americans and other marginalized communities are witnessing voter suppression tactics across this country. Couple this with voter intimidation and white supremacy, and you get Black folks shopping for guns — not for aggression, but to be prepared for the aggression headed their way. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently uncovered that the white nationalist movement embraced increasingly extreme rhetoric in 2019. Some in the movement openly advocate violence and terrorism as a way to precipitate a race war. “White nationalists and neo-Nazis across the movement are more openly expressing their belief that violence is, if not desirable, inevitable,” the SPLC writes. “This belief will likely gain further support as political tensions increase surrounding the 2020 election.”

Words matter. Any president who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office has the ability to move markets and start wars by a mere speech, press release — or, given the current occupant, a tweet. As a result of an intentional use of words by Trump, a 2019 report by the SPLC stated, “the number of white nationalist groups identified by the SPLC rose for the second straight year, a 55 percent increase since 2017, when Donald Trump’s campaign energized white nationalists who saw him as an avatar of their grievances and their anxiety over the country’s demographic changes.”

Trump’s recent white supremacist comments in the first 2020 presidential debate telling Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” increased white supremacist activity and emboldened white supremacists. In 2018, the FBI categorized the Proud Boys as an extremist group with white nationalist ties. On September 24, 2020, the FBI put out a statement warning voters about voter intimidation and suppression tactics and crimes that will occur leading up to the 2020 election.

This is why escape routes are being planned and guns are being purchased. (A sentence I never thought I would write, but here we are.) This is why we can’t let the suppression tactics win. This is why we must push through the discomfort and vote. Vote in numbers. Vote in pairs. Vote downballot, especially. Governors, state legislators, city or county clerk: These are the offices that we must elect to roll back suppression tactics and enforce voter protection, to create more access to our constitutional right to vote.

Just know this: Voter intimidation is illegal. If you see people making you feel uncomfortable at the polling location, even if they’re just staring, call your local authority immediately. This will not be tolerated. If you are experiencing difficulty accessing and exercising your right to vote, call The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law hotline at (866) OUR-VOTE. If we’re all there, not only can we not be turned away, but we have more power than ever to vote in actual change — and find ourselves with the power that we’ve been denied all these many years.