On this episode of As the South Votes, Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter Fund joins us to talk through an overview of voter suppression, what it looks like, and what people can do ahead of the upcoming election to protect their vote.
When a lot of people think about voter suppression, they think about the most hardline forms: police at polling places, photo ID restrictions, or closing of early voting locations—but Cliff Albright, cofounder of Black Voters Matter Fund (and BVM Capacity Building Institute), says that voter suppression is a spectrum.
He says it's the most underreported story of 2020. But from the 15th amendment, to Jim Crow, to the Voting Rights Act—the South's marginalized communities have always dealt with voter suppression in its various forms.
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"It's in times like these that we're always able to bring out the best of us," Albright says. "It's been in the darkest times that we've been able to dig deep down, come together, in our faith, and work together and get some victories impact elections, pick presidents pick governors pick all the way down the line, that were able to demonstrate some control—but it's never perfect, never fully realized, and never as much as it should be."
So what is voter suppression?
"Changing locations, constantly having different rules—states where, for some reason, they vote on a Thursday in some elections a Tuesday on other elections—voter suppression can mean any change that creates confusion around the voting process."
BVM builds community and organizational capacity related to Black voting power. Albright's group received national attention in 2017 when they helped mobilize Black voters during the U.S. Senate race between Doug Jones and Roy Moore.
Especially in complicated races, misinformation and disinformation are also a tactic of voter suppression, Albright says.
Some offices use shrouded language—language that's used with what he calls "surgical precision," that targets marginalized communities.
Black Voters Matter has been in litigation in two states—and they're considering a third—around a range of issues related to COVID-19 and vote by mail in order to expand access to it. In Georgia, they're trying to deal with issues around postage for absentee ballots. In Alabama, they're working on shifting signature and the photo ID requirements. Their partners in some states have been in litigation around issues like that of Tennessee, where it's not clear if first time voters can even vote absentee.
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Have a question or tip about voter suppression? Text us.
"And you've still got three or four states, all in the South, where COVID-19 is not being accepted as an excuse to allow expanded use of the absentee process that expanded use of vote by mail."
One major challenge is around counties throughout the South that want to allow curbside voting, but where the Secretary of State won't allow it. "Much the way we just went through this whole thing of COVID-19, you had some cities and counties that wanted to do things like mask orders stay at home orders, but governors step in and say 'No, not only are we not going to do it, but as a state we're not going to allow you to do it.'"
Albright says COVID-19 has served to point out how many broken systems already worked against voters' interests, but that it's important to remember that the luxury of changing one's priorities or way of life during a pandemic is not one that everyone can afford.
"When all else fails and we just want to stick with the tradition, then let's do it as best as we can, as safely as possible and as effectively as we can."
We Got Power
In 2018, Albright and the BVM team travelled throughout seven Southern states in "The Blackest Bus in America" energizing voters and exposing voter suppression. This year, the theme around their listening and action tour is "We Got Power."
They're pushing the idea of voting caravans, where voters can get their ballot, hop in the car and go down to the board of elections office or the drop box together.
"Remember—what's the thing that we actually value about the experience?" he says. "It's the togetherness—so how can we get that same sense of connection and togetherness and empowerment, without necessarily going to vote in person?"
This tour—which includes a fleet of what Albright calls "baby buses," as well as 15-passenger vans—is intended to rebuild excitement around the process of casting your ballot.
"It's about creating that energy that we're trying to recreate again, when you can't get it because you're not doing big rallies, and you're not doing door-to-door, but doing these caravans and these trips and these bus tours helps."
But another side of their campaign is more practical in fighting suppression: These vehicles play a part in absentee and early voting, helping to get people to ride together to go to the polling places or to go to the board of elections to hand in their vote by mail ballots
For those who choose to vote on Election Day, Albright says his team uses these same vans to bring supplies, masks, and hand sanitizer.
"There is this feeling with everything that we've been going through with COVID-19—and with the protests and the police violence, with the misinformation and the propaganda that's out there about the selection, the attacks on the on the post office—there is this feeling of that we don't have power, and that things are just spinning out of control. Then Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies, so there's just this feeling of 'What are we to do?' I can't even put my things in the mail because I don't know how long it's gonna take and literally, that's taking the power out of your hands. If you feel like you're putting something in the mail that's gonna blow away in the wind and that's almost the definition of feeling powerless."
"It's all part of this special sauce," Albright says. "I am more confident than ever that together, we will win."