From the beginning, voting has been an essential tool of democracy. The ability to choose our representation, the candidates who will fight for the needs and wants of our communities, is an intrinsic part of being civically engaged in the United States as well as other democratically oriented nations.
While this right has been consistently provided to a few here in the US, there are a great many actively denied their participation. Since the nation’s inception, groups such as Black Americans, women, the current or previously incarcerated, and other minorities have had to fight for their place at the polling stations.
Throughout our history, as the right to vote was won by these groups, new and improved ways to stop their voices came into play. We call this voter suppression, and it can take multiple forms including legal restrictions that impede access to intimidation tactics, aggression and violence.
In 2020, a year built on turmoil, it should be no surprise that our society is beginning to shine a light on the inequities built throughout our institutions. With a deeply divided presidential election taking place this year, voter suppression reared its ugly face once more.
In Michigan, there has been a longstanding ban against transporting folks to the polls on Election day. A state law passed in 1895 made it a misdemeanor crime to hire transportation for ambulatory voters unless they are physically unable to walk. Historically, this law was passed to limit or at least lessen a type of voter fraud called ‘vote-hauling’, which looks something like:
“I’ll give you a ride if you vote for my candidate.”
In our modern day and age, many organizations throughout the state use transportation as an opportunity to make sure that their clients, who may have limited access otherwise, are able to vote. Due to a federal court upholding of the state law on October 22nd, 2020, these organizations must stop the transport or be at risk of penalty, which can range from 90 days in jail to a $500 fine.
“It is extremely disappointing to see a federal court actively disenfranchise Americans and we are exploring next steps to determine what would be best for the voters in Michigan,” said Guy Cecil, chairman for Priorities USA.
Disappointing indeed. There was a silver lining to the scenario, though, and may groups were able to secure volunteers. The law does not say anything about free rides, so transportation companies can offer vehicles and drivers as long as it is done on a charitable basis and there is no reimbursement for time or gas.
In Ann Arbor, the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County was able to coordinate with Estella Express who provided 100% free transportation for those at the shelter to the polls. Estella is normally hired to take people to and from the airport, but donated her time and vehicle for the day to support the cause.
Loopholes are possible, but should they be necessary?
Getting people out to vote is difficult enough. However, voters experience more disincentive upon arrival. Registering to vote can occur up until the day of the election. It must be completed at the City Clerks Office, and you must have a form of ID and proof of residency. This could be a piece of mail that reflects the address on the identification, something often taken for granted by those who are consistently housed.
For individuals experiencing homelessness, this can be an immediate and insurmountable barrier. Addresses on forms of ID are not always current or local to where the individual is hoping to vote now. Transportation to their polling places could be impossible to secure, and so many choose to change their registration residency. To do so, that piece of mail is imperative, but not always available meaning individuals are turned away, voiceless.
These are barriers within our policies and procedures, but what happens when access is restricted by the people?
For months we have been seeing the divide deepen in the United States. This particular election has been a spark igniting anger and, unfortunately, danger.
Prior to the election, Michigan’s Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, attempted to ban open-carry of guns to the polls. The attempt was thwarted by the Michigan Court of Claims who ruled the law illegal as it did not go through the proper process. After an appeal was made, the decision remained firm. Guns could enter the voting arena.
One might inquire as to the necessity for armed weapons in a democratic proceeding such as choosing our next president. It seems there are two potential reasons: protection or intimidation. If for protection, the question is from whom? If for intimidation, the question changes to are we willing to allow this?
Appeals are currently in place to contend with Michigan’s transportation ban as well as the open-carry policy at the state and federal level. While change will come too late for this election, let us come together to decide what we want to see in the next. Always remember, the people are the power; our voices of today are the reality of tomorrow.