Democracy Defended

Key Findings From the 2020 Election

Democracy was on the ballot in 2020.

Despite an unprecedented series of challenges—a global pandemic, extreme weather, rampant misinformation, voter intimidation, and coordinated efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters of color—Black voters turned out in record numbers in 2020 to have their voices heard in one of our nation’s most important election years.

But let’s be clear. The election did not go smoothly. Record turnout nationally and in many states was only possible thanks to a Herculean effort on the part of many non-profit organizations and many thousands of individuals and volunteers, as well as the enormous sums of money spent on election security and countering misinformation.

Democracy in America remains on a razor’s edge.

Immediately after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, states across the nation began introducing legislation to suppress the rights of voters and diminish access to the ballot box for voters of color – a clear and direct response to the impact those voters had in the 2020 election season and again in Georgia’s 2021 runoff election. Lawmakers responded by introducing hundreds of voter suppression bills in 49 states using baseless claims and conspiracy theories about non-existent “election fraud.” 

While the specific forms of suppression and intimidation may have been new, these attacks on the fundamental rights of Black citizens and other voters of color all grew from the same rotten root of anti-Blackness and white supremacy that’s disfigured our democracy throughout the history of our country.

2020 saw a dramatic increase in attempts to suppress the vote of Black, Latinx, and other minority-community voters.

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Restrictive voting bills have been introduced since the 2020 election.

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Voter suppression bills have been enacted.

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States have introduced restrictive voting bills.

Since the 2020 election, at least 17 states have passed voter suppression laws, with over 400 similar bills introduced in 49 states. This crisis at the state level demands federal action, just as it did in 1965 when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

We are still seeing the devastating consequences of the Shelby County v. Holder decision eight years after it gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and dismantled the preclearance process. Had the preclearance process been in place, many of these bills likely would have been stopped before ever becoming law.

New legislation to protect the franchise, such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4), are desperately needed. It is imperative that the Senate immediately act to pass critical voting rights legislation. Municipal election season and the redistricting process are already underway. There is no time to waste.

The content of this report bears witness to persistent and unrelenting attempts to suppress the Black vote.

Democracy Defended captures and analyzes election-related activities undertaken by LDF during the 2020 election season, including our Prepared to Vote (PTV) — a nonpartisan voter education and advocacy initiative — and Voting Rights Defender — a year-round effort to identify voter suppression and take decisive action to eliminate them — programs (VRD) run by LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute. It provides documentation of barriers faced by Black voters in PTV/VRD focus states and solutions for policy makers, election administrators, and community members to implement to ensure fair access to the vote in future elections.

Our organizing and election monitoring operations had components with national scope, but focused primarily on 10 states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas — most of which were subject to Section 5 Voting Rights Act oversight before the Shelby County v. Holder decision by the Supreme Court.

To provide accurate and updated voter information during a year when voting procedures changed rapidly in response to the global pandemic, LDF launched its first-ever voting microsite. The site provides state-specific information for voters to check on deadlines, voting requirements, polling locations, and much more. It also provides voters with the ability to report incidents of voter suppression and intimidation.

Thanks in part to the essential work of our partners including the Poor People’s Campaign, Forward Justice, and the Election Protection Coalition run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, PTV and VRD had a significant impact, resulting in the deployment of over 1,300 poll monitors and the recruitment—in partnership with LeBron James’ More Than A Vote—of 42,500 poll workers.

In addition to alerting election officials about instances of voter intimidation, LDF’s litigation team went to the courts to push back against instances of voter intimidation perpetrated by government officials.

Democracy Defended documents pre-election barriers to voting; state-specific litigation; information on voter issues reported by our trained nonpartisan poll monitors and remote monitors; state and county specific advocacy PTV/VRD teams undertook to counteract the barriers and issues identified; and data related to direct voter education.

Key Findings from the 2020 Election:

Mail-in voting is a critical option for all communities, but especially Black voters.

LDF’s work resulted in changes to mail-in voting requirements, ID policies, curbside voting access, and drop-box accessibility—all of which help increase voter protections and accessibility while providing a means for voters of color to avoid the threats of violence and intimidation that surrounded the 2020 election and stay safe during a global pandemic.

Early voting is an essential feature of ensuring fair access to the polls, especially for Black voters.

To voters concerned about contracting COVID-19, for example, early voting provided a safer option. Similarly, early voting helped prospective voters who worried about experiencing intimidation and threats at their polling site. In states that lack early voting, such as Mississippi and Alabama, LDF observed extraordinarily long lines of people waiting hours to vote.

Election administration mismanagement disproportionately burdens voters of color.

By creating enormous voting lines and requiring voters to wait for as many as 10 hours to vote, officials in states such as Mississippi and Alabama created a situation in which many voters who could not afford to spend so much time waiting—because of health, transportation, childcare, and work concerns—were unable to participate in this most fundamental aspect of our democracy.

Our democracy continues to require an outsized proportion of non-government resources to protect the right to vote.

LDF and our volunteers worked remotely to monitor the election and quickly respond to last-minute polling site changes, blatant disinformation tactics to confuse or mislead voters, insufficient numbers of drop-boxes for mail-in ballots, and inaccessible polling locations. The need for such extensive and intensive advocacy work would be greatly reduced through common-sense policy changes, including the automatic extension of poll hours when technical delays and long lines thwart prospective voters.

Threats of violence and voter intimidation against voters of color were widespread.

While the 2020 election saw a historic number of Black citizens vote, it was also witness to an alarming surge in tactics aimed at intimidating voters. LDF volunteers on the ground reported incidences ranging from agitated partisan crowds verbally assaulting voters to trucks and other large vehicles—including military-style tanks—carrying Trump flags. These significant threats of violence made the options of voting by mail and early voting even more necessary.

State Reports

Alabama

Alabama was one of the states previously covered by the Section 5 preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act prior to the Shelby County decision in 2013. In 2020, the combination of Alabama’s broad restrictive voting procedures designed to suppress Black voting power, a raging pandemic, and major power outages caused by storms created immense barriers for voters. VRD conducted state level advocacy, but also engaged in advocacy focused on specific counties. We worked with regional voting rights partners, local community organizations, and volunteer poll monitors. 

Florida

VRD conducted state level advocacy in Florida, but also engaged in advocacy focused on specific counties in the Florida panhandle. We worked with regional voting rights partners, local community organizations, and volunteer poll monitors. 

Georgia

As with many states, the Georgia elections were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Georgia Presidential Preference Primary, originally scheduled for March, was rescheduled for June 9, and combined with the Statewide Primary. Georgia held run-off elections on January 5, 2021, for two U.S. Senate seats and a Public Service Commission seat. LDF conducted statewide advocacy, but also engaged in advocacy focused on specific counties in southwest Georgia. We worked with regional voting rights partners, local community organizations, and volunteer poll monitors. At the invitation of Georgia voting rights partner organizations, we engaged in targeted local and statewide advocacy during the runoff election.

Louisiana

Louisiana has an extensive history of voter suppression as a state formerly covered in full by the Voting Rights Act Section 5 preclearance requirements prior to the Shelby County decision. The state is also exceptional for its frequent election cycles, governed by a unique set of voting laws and bureaucratic emergency planning requirements. In 2020, Louisiana voters faced multiple interlacing emergencies requiring unprecedented election accommodations and planning. Along with our partner state and local voting rights advocates, LDF pursued multitactic efforts—in the legislature, courts, and local communities—to pave the way for historic participation in all the elections.

Mississippi

South Carolina

South Carolina has a well-documented history of limited suffrage and voter suppression, especially targeting Black voters. South Carolina was one of the states covered in its entirety by the Voting Rights Act Section 5 preclearance requirement prior to the Shelby County decision in 2013. Most recently, the legislature has advanced voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise Black voters. LDF found that County Election Boards used an electronic poll book that omitted registered voters, failed to properly train poll workers about curbside access, and did not properly train poll workers in general. In addition to the noted systemic issues, increased voter intimidation and the COVID-19 pandemic created a challenging voting environment in 2020. In ordinary times, South Carolina has restrictive voting options, with restricted availability of absentee ballots, burdensome witness requirements for absentee ballots, and no early voting. The pandemic in the 2020 election season exacerbated South Carolina’s significant burdens to voting.

Texas

Before the Shelby County decision in 2013, Texas was one of the states required to get federal approval for voting changes under Section 5 of the VRA. With this loss of pre-clearance, the state government immediately placed new suppressive voting policies that continue its long history of limiting full political participation for Black, Latinx, and Asian citizens. Resistance to expanding ballot access by Texas officials manifested in many ways resulting in disastrous wait times in certain counties during the March 2020 primaries. The COVID-19 pandemic both aggravated the problem of limited voter registration and voting options and provided a push to change critical elements of the current election system.

Kentucky

In a typical election year, Kentucky offers limited options and hours for voting. In April 2020, Kentucky also implemented a more restrictive photo identification requirement for voters, which was passed by the legislature over the Governor’s veto. In response to the pandemic, the Governor and Secretary of State reached a bipartisan agreement for the primary election. The primary was delayed from May 19 to June 23, and all registered voters were eligible to receive mail ballots, and early voting (“absentee in person”) was implemented. Early voting was limited to the hours of 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. from Monday through Friday, beginning eight days before the election, in Jefferson County. The Kentucky Board of Elections also allowed counties to set up absentee ballot drop boxes at county courthouses.

Michigan and Pennsylvania

Through LDF’s partnership with Forward Justice and the Poor People’s Campaign, we trained large numbers of volunteers in Michigan and Pennsylvania to be nonpartisan poll monitors.
In Michigan, LDF sent text messages with important nonpartisan voter information and links to 179,631 voters in Michigan.
In Pennsylvania, we sent texts with links to nonpartisan voter information to 230,722 voters.
Additionally, we coordinated with Election Protection partners in both states to support the response to and resolution of issues flagged by volunteers or through the 866-OURVOTE hotline.

Litigation

LDF Case

filed: September 2020

Shortly after Louis DeJoy was appointed Postmaster General, the USPS imposed changes in its mail delivery policies bypassing legally required procedures to ensure accountability and an opportunity for public comment. These changes led to widespread delays in mail delivery across the nation when it mattered most: during a global pandemic when people were relying on the mail for medications, stimulus checks, voting, and more.

LDF and co-counsel Public Citizen filed a lawsuit to reverse the policies that led to widespread delays and to ensure that mail-in ballots would be delivered on time to be counted. Although the court granted a preliminary injunction in our favor in October, the USPS did not immediately comply and substantial mail delays persisted. This led to multiple court orders requiring USPS to implement measures to ensure that ballots were delivered in a timely manner and to provide the court with data about the status of its efforts. Ultimately, our suit resulted in USPS implementing court-ordered “extraordinary measures” for the timely delivery of ballots.

Despite this order, however, the plaintiffs had to return to court four times (including on Election Day) for emergency orders to compel the USPS to comply and prioritize delivery of mail-in ballots.

On December 17 2021, LDF and Public Citizen announced a settlement in the historic case. The settlement ensures that it will undertake similar efforts to prioritize the delivery of ballots in future national elections.

LDF Case

filed: November 2020

On the last day of early voting in Alamance County, North Carolina, 200 peaceful marchers and prospective voters were walking from a local church to a nearby poll site. Without provocation or warning, officers from the Graham Police Department and Alamance County Sheriff’s Office repeatedly deployed pepper spray into the crowd—among them young children, elderly individuals, and those with disabilities—just seconds after they had knelt in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of the police killing of George Floyd.

Instead of voting as they had planned, the marchers were forced to flee the area to protect themselves and their families. Fearful of returning to the area that day, some prospective voters were unable to register to vote by the 3 p.m. deadline and therefore could not vote on Election Day. 

On November 2, 2020, LDF and co-counsel filed a lawsuit against the City of Graham and Alamance County challenging this unwarranted use of force and intimidation of prospective voters. The lawsuit asserts assert claims for violation of Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Section 1985(3) of the KKK Act, and the 1st and 4th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

In June 2021, a settlement was reached in the case.

Shortly after the election, we filed a lawsuit against President Trump and his campaign challenging their coordinated efforts to disenfranchise Black voters in Michigan by intimidating, threatening, and coercing state and local elections officials in an effort to pressure them not to certify or count votes cast in Detroit. We later filed an amended complaint challenging similar conduct in other states and adding the Republican National Committee as a defendant.

Our action seeks to protect the integrity of votes cast by Black voters in Detroit from the president’s attempts to overturn the will of voters expressed at the ballot box.

The lawsuit claims that both the president and his campaign are in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Exerting pressure on state and local officials not to count or certify voters is prohibited by Section 11(b) because it involves conduct that “intimidate[s], threaten[s], or coerce[s], or attempt[s] to intimidate, threaten, or coerce” people involved in “aiding any person to vote or attempt to vote.”

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants encouraged their supporters to slow and attempt to stop vote counting efforts in tightly contested states, pressured state and local officials not to certify election results, raised baseless challenges to the validity of legally cast ballots, and engaged media campaigns designed to intimidate and misinform voters and election officials 

Federal Policy Recomendations

Congress must enact critical voting rights legislation to:

• Increase Americans’ access to the ballot box by expanding early and absentee voting
• Establish automatic voter registration
• Limit efforts to purge voter rolls
• Prohibit disinformation about elections
• Increase penalties for voter intimidation
• Replace partisan gerrymandering with non-partisan commissions
• Restore the voting rights of people who were formerly incarcerated
• Introduce new campaign finance reforms.

Congress must enact the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4) to restore the Voting Rights Act preclearance provision with an updated formula and require certain jurisdictions to secure federal approval before enacting voting law changes.

In response to the growing tendency toward suppressive laws, particularly stricter ID requirements, Congress should review all state laws to determine which jurisdictions should be covered by preclearance, even if they have not been in the past.

Congress must also continue to authorize additional funding of the Help America Vote Act Election Security Funds to:

• Enable states to modernize their voting equipment
• Enable states to recruit and fully train poll workers
• Require the Elections Assistance Commission to ensure states are meeting minimal elections administration standards, and that they have adequate contingency plans in place so voting can continue despite weather, power outages, or unforeseen events such as the coronavirus pandemic.

State Policy Recomendations

All states must enact voting laws that ensure the franchise is available to every citizen equally.

All states should facilitate voter participation in elections by offering the widest range of options, including online and same-day registration, vote-by-mail, and early voting.

States must repeal discriminatory voting laws that adversely impact the ability of people of color to register and to vote.

State and local officials must utilize available federal funding to improve election administration procedures and to provide greater election security in the voting process itself as well as at the polls.

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