In a contentious election year with voter suppression on the rise, the list of possible catastrophes is pretty long. The Department of Justice has just dealt a major blow to voting rights in the United States with the news that it won’t be dispatching election monitors to some of the most vulnerable states in November. In a contentious election year where voter suppression is likely to be a recurring theme across the country, this is extremely bad news — because instead of relying on federal observers, we’re going to be forced to count on voters themselves enforcing their rights. If election monitors sound like something the UN dispatches to developing democracies, it’s not just nations like Iraq that need monitoring to ensure that everyone has a fair chance at the vote. Systemic inequality and a repeated pattern of voter suppression in the United States demonstrates that we can’t get it together when it comes to protecting the “one person, one vote” principle that’s supposed to be a cornerstone of American life. We can blame 2013’s Shelby County v Holder for this particular DOJ decision. The agency believes that the Supreme Court’s move, which invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, limits the amount of oversight it can conduct during elections. Historically, the agency could send federal election observers to any states that it felt merited closer monitoring as a result of concerns about restrictions on voting rights. Now, it can only dispatch them in the event of a federal court ruling, and just five states have such rulings outstanding: California, Alabama, Louisiana, Alaska, and New York.
Voter suppression tactics like voter ID laws, moving or closing polling places, questionable purges of the rolls, proof of citizenship requirements, and extremely early voter registration deadlines are in play across the country. Shelby actually made that easier, as the DOJ no longer has the authority to require so-called “preclearance” states to present proposed election-related legislation for approval.
States with a history of voter suppression rejoiced with the Shelby ruling, which made it possible for them to double down on practices that disenfranchise people of color, low-income people, and disabled voters, many of whom lack the documentation required to meet new polling place standards. Voting rights activists had just the opposite response, and some of their worst fears are already being realized.
During primaries this year, problems with voting were reported across the country. In low-income, Latinx-dominated communities in Arizona, there were no polling places. In Wisconsin, voter ID laws and long lines discouraged people who were planning to cast ballots. Blind voters have repeatedly struggled with machines that don’t work and polling place workers who can’t help them. In New York, a very suspicious voter purge disenfranchised entirely eligible voters. In Texas, poll workers refused provisional ballots to voters who had difficulty meeting ID requirements.