As Election Day (finally) approaches, fear-mongering about 'rampant' voter fraud across the country has reached a fever pitch. Massachusetts is no exception. Last week, the ACLU of Massachusetts encountered a letter to local election officials from an alleged Trump supporter. The letter detailed his plans to ensure the election is not rigged. Identifying himself as a member of the supposed 'Trump Election Monitoring Team,' the author explained that he and others will be posted inside election halls to demand IDs and record voters to make sure they vote only once. In Massachusetts, government-issued ID is not required to cast a ballot. Although the Trump campaign says the letter was not authored by anyone officially associated with them, it is an example of how unsupported claims that the election will be rigged by voter fraud can impact voting at the polls. The ACLU is nonpartisan and doesn't endorse any candidates or political parties. However, because of our commitment to protecting civil liberties, we are concerned about access to the polls.
For all the frantic debate, in-person voter fraud is nearly nonexistent. A comprehensive study by a Loyola professor who analyzed voter ballots from 2000-2014 found that, out of the one billion votes cast during that period, only 31 known cases of fraud were detected. In reality, in-person voter fraud would be an incredibly costly and ineffective method of rigging an election. Individuals convicted of fraud face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. For most people, that just isn't worth adding one vote in support of a candidate. Since voter fraud happens so rarely, it appears that the tactics described in the letter have the potential to intimidate voters rather than protect the integrity of the process.
The United States has a long and sordid history of voter suppression, beginning with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. After the amendment declared the explicit denial of voting rights based on race unconstitutional, states got more creative in their efforts to suppress Black peoples' votes. Tactics such as creating poll taxes and requiring literacy tests were complemented by terrorism by whites who physically attacked Black people. In spite of this, African American voter registration intensified and in 1964, through the work of organizers and activists during the Civil Rights Movement, the voter tax was banned. A year later, the Voting Rights Acts was passed, barring states from building racially discriminatory barriers that restrict who can vote. This legislation also gave the federal government the authority to enact these provisions, providing the federal muscle needed to protect the voting rights of people of color.
Even with the Voting Rights Act in place, voter suppression persists. For example, today in many states, people who are convicted and incarcerated on felony charges are banned from voting. In Massachusetts, people who are incarcerated for a felony are ineligible to vote, but voting rights are restored upon release. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow individuals to vote while incarcerated. These policies deprive a significant portion of the US population of their fundamental right to vote. Because of the nature of the criminal justice system, this disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people of color and the poor. Vigilante poll monitors who harass or intimidate eligible voters, turning individuals away from polling places and neglecting to provide bilingual ballots, are also part of the problem. Harassment of this kind happened in Worcester's 2012 election when poll monitors took pictures of Latino voters and unduly challenged their ballots.
In 2013, the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by allowing state governments to enact laws that suppress the votes of people of color. Voter ID laws, often referred to as the descendants of the racist poll tax and literacy tests, are one of their newest iterations. While in-person voter fraud is extremely rare, lacking an ID is not. Due to financial and other barriers to obtaining a government-issued photo ID, as many as 11 percent of eligible voters (21 million) do not have one. That percentage is even higher for seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters and students. The troubling trend of racially discriminatory voter ID legislation, and the ever-present threat of voter intimidation, are but two of the many tactics of voter suppression that necessitate the ACLU's fight to defend voting rights and increase voter access.
After the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit saying that Massachusetts' arbitrary voter registration deadline disenfranchises eligible voters, a judge sided with us, allowing our three plaintiffs to vote on Election Day. The suit was one of many ways in which we continue our work to expand access to the ballot.
Democracy functions better when more people, especially the systemically marginalized, have the power to exercise their right to vote. The government should not create barriers that restrict people from voting. The ACLU of Massachusetts is working hard to protect the rights of voters, and to create a future in which factors such as race, class, and gender have no influence on whether or not one can vote.
Kristiana Jordan is an intern at the ACLU of Massachusetts.