Election Security Means Nothing to Those Denied the Right to Vote
By Terry Ao Minnis – Senior Director of Census and Voting Programs, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC
“Election integrity” has become a rallying cry during recent election cycles, often bandied about by those sternly warning of supposed “voter fraud” and used as the pretext for increasing restrictions on the right to vote across the country. Indeed, “election integrity” has long been conflated with “election security,” though the two are not the same. In 2020, The Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) reaffirmed that:
“[F]air and free elections are a hallmark of American democracy. The American people’s confidence in the value of their vote is principally reliant on the security and resilience of the infrastructure that makes the Nation’s elections possible. Accordingly, an electoral process that is both secure and resilient is a vital national interest and one of [its] highest priorities.”
True election integrity is far more comprehensive, however. While securing the vote is necessary, ensuring all voters have fair and equal access to the ballot, especially those most vulnerable to disenfranchisement, is the cornerstone of election integrity and ensuring the health of our democracy.
A History of Election Insecurity
The lack of equal access to the ballot for communities of color is a long-standing issue, tracing its roots back to the founding of this country when the right to vote was restricted to a few (i.e., white, land-owning males). For example, Asian Americans were denied the ability to vote for most of the country’s existence, despite being present since the mid-1800s. This bar existed until 1943 when the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act granted persons of Chinese origin the ability to naturalize. Most other Asian immigrants gained the ability to naturalize through the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act (Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952) and its subsequent amendments in 1965.
Even once granted the ability to become citizens, Asian Americans, like many communities of color, remained locked out of the democratic process. Voter suppression has had a long history in our country, often targeting specific groups such as immigrants, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, both explicitly and implicitly. These long-standing methods, some still in use today, include discriminatory redistricting practices, registration acts, poll taxes, secret ballots, and consolidation of polling places or last-minute failure to open polls. These policies and practices significantly limit the influence of the targeted group’s vote on the outcomes of elections.
For many minority groups, voter discrimination, language barriers, lack of access to voter resources, voter suppression efforts, and unfamiliarity with the voting process disproportionately challenge their ability to reach their full potential in civic engagement. We have seen this phenomenon continue as access to the ballot has come under increasing attack in response to the 2020 elections, as well as the exponential growth and increased political participation of communities of color.
Holding Back Changing Tides
Over the past two decades, the number of eligible Asian American voters grew by almost 150%, from almost five million in 2000 to over 11.5 million in 2020 (as compared to a growth rate of 24% for the total population over that same time period). We’ve also seen an uptick in Asian Americans who are more enthusiastic to vote, from 28% in 2014 to 54% in 2020. This has occurred alongside increases in voter registration and turnout for many communities of color, chipping away at long-standing, persistent voter participation gaps between minority and white voters. In the 2020 election, we saw the overall number of voters grow from 137.5 million voters in 2016 to 154.6 million voters in 2020, representing the largest increase between presidential elections. Communities of color represent a significant portion of that growth.
Unfortunately, in the face of the increased participation, we have seen a retraction in the types of policies that would make voting more accessible, such as universal absentee voting, vote by mail, and expanded voter registration. In 2021, 18 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting, with more than 440 bills with such provisions being introduced in 49 states during the 2021 legislative sessions. As of May 4, 2022, at least 34 bills with restrictive provisions were moving through 11 state legislatures, with at least 393 restrictive bills being considered in 39 states for the 2022 legislative session. These restrictive measures will have an outsized effect on communities of color, who are often the targets for these restrictions. These voter suppression efforts target voting policies and practices that have been effective in getting our communities to the ballot box and are a blow to election integrity for voters across the racial and economic spectrum.
Make no mistake, while ensuring election security is important for the health of our democracy, it should not be the primary focus of our voting policies or election integrity. The reality is voter fraud is not a pervasive problem that actually occurs in our elections. Study after study has shown that most reported incidences of “voter fraud” are actually most often clerical errors, bad data matching practices, or administrative mistakes. But studies and courts have consistently raised alarms about the ongoing and pervasive problem of unequal access to the ballot for vulnerable communities.
Election Security with Integrity
Voting policies should be driven by ensuring access by those most vulnerable and least likely to participate. Devising policies that address existing barriers, such as language, transportation, and time-off-work, can go a long way to make voting more available to voters across the demographic spectrum. For the 2020 election, of the eligible Asian Americans who did not vote, almost 1 in 4 (24.8%) decided not to because they were too busy or had a conflicting schedule. Another 9.1% declined to vote because of registration problems and another 9.3% because of pandemic-related concerns. This represents almost half of the Asian Americans who decided not to vote.
These concerns could be ameliorated with simple, accessible voting policies. Same-day voter registration and early voting could address registration problems and inability to vote on Election Day, as well as help address the lack of familiarity with the voting process for many new voters. Universal absentee voting and expanded options to vote by mail would address not only issues around availability and convenience on Election Day, but also allow every voter to take the time they need to fill out their ballots without rushing or feeling embarrassed, as well as give them access to help from friends and relatives who may not be able to go with them to the polls.
If we harken back to CISA’s statement at the beginning of this article, we can see that efforts to restrict the vote fly in the face of the concept that “[f]air and free elections are a hallmark of American democracy.” “Fair and free” must embody the concept of accessibility for all eligible. After all, how can an election be fair if diverse voices are silenced by voter suppression, while only those already in power have access to participate? We must not tolerate the co-opting of election integrity by those who seek the further disenfranchisement of voters, but continue the fight for accessible and secure elections for all.
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