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Virus, Online Rhetoric and Suppression Challenged Southern Voters in 2020: Report

Last year’s elections highlighted issues that need to be fixed in Southern election systems, according to a new report.

(CN) — The challenges for voters were many during the leadup to Election Day.

Across five southern states, obstacles from the Covid-19 pandemic and laws such as felony disenfranchisement statutes disproportionately affected Black and minority voters during the 2020 elections, the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a report issued Wednesday.

“In the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic and extreme, threatening rhetoric online, voters particularly in the deep South had to decide whether to risk their health and safety to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot,” SPLC President Margaret Huang said in a Zoom call with reporters. “And here's the beautiful part: They did.” 

Voters in many areas across the South turned out in record levels, thanks to groups that registered and mobilized them. And while organizations like SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League briefed election officials for possible violence or intimidation at the polls, the number of actual instances were few, like a man in Louisiana standing outside a polling place with a rifle and a Trump flag.

But Huang also said the 2020 elections helped highlight the shortcomings of the Southern states’ election systems, which her organization said are best addressed through congressional action.

“There is little question that some voters were prevented from casting their ballots because of targeted voter suppression,” she said.  

While some states tweaked their voting procedures because of the pandemic, the SPLC said they often did not do enough to respond to the health crisis, sometimes struggling to staff precincts with poll workers. At a time when voters turned to mail-in ballots to do their civic duty in a socially distanced way, the U.S. Postal Service delivered 150,000 ballots late, according to the SPLC.

The events during the 2020 elections have led to “the single most dangerous threat to the future of our democracy,” Huang said, which is the effort by state lawmakers, in the name of election integrity, to consider legislation that would make it more difficult to vote.

In its report, the SPLC examined the 2020 election systems in five southern states: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“We wanted to really document and build a political record to demonstrate that the concerns and fears that voters have been expressing over these years were not manufactured,” said Nancy Abudu, the group’s deputy legal director, who helped author the report.

The report comes at a time when lawmakers in 43 statehouses are considering about 253 laws to restrict voting access, with Georgia being one of the chief states to consider revisions to its election law.

“In Georgia, after voters changed the state's political landscape in 2020, Republicans in the state legislature launched more than 50 anti-voter bills that are reminiscent of Jim Crow-era schemes to block Black voters from the ballot,” said Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, during the call with reporters. “This is a reprehensible power grab.”

Georgia lawmakers are considering bills that, for instance, would do away with automatic voter registration and end no-excuse absentee voting in hopes, they say, of ensuring confidence in the outcome of the state’s elections relieving stress on county election officials.

While the SPLC helped bring election-related lawsuits in these Southern states ahead of the November election, it says litigation can only go so far.

For instance, in Alabama, the group challenged the state’s de facto ban on curbside voting, created when Secretary of State John Merrill determined that state law did not support the policy. The SPLC argued curbside voting, or casting a ballot from a car outside a voting precinct, would help elderly and disabled voters.

After a trial and an appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately said Alabama could prevent election officials from offering curbside voting.

But there was a silver lining, the SPLC said. According to its report, some counties named in the suit settled and others went ahead and expanded their hours. And for a two-week period when the district judge’s order stood in effect, voters in Alabama were able to cast ballots under loosened restrictions.

Now, the Alabama Legislature is considering a bill that would ban curbside voting, Abudu said.

“In some instances, the courts did not do all that they had the ability to do in terms of protecting voters, so that is a concern,” she said. “It is a concern if we are left to litigation to protect these rights, which is why we need the Congress to act."

But Merrill said in a statement that federal bills such as the For the People Act, which recently passed the U.S. House, “is a dangerous overreach by the federal government.” The legislation implements automatic voter registration, restores voting rights of convicted felons and expands access to voting by mail.

During the 2020 elections, the secretary of state said Alabama election officials rose to meet pandemic challenges and handled a more than three-fold increase in absentee voting. Participation broke records while the election system remained secure, he said.

“As the SPLC highlighted in their recent tabloid, Alabama has moved forward, and there is room for improvement, which is why our office has introduced an extensive legislative agenda aimed at making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Merrill said.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Law, National, Politics

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