Those photos and stories come and go; they rarely make the front pages, and then, in a few hours the problems at the polls are forgotten. Every election cycle, voters of color face tiring lines, delays, baffling disorder and countless minor inconveniences that directly affect the accessibility and fairness of our elections. Their complaints are almost never heard.
But irregularities in Iowa, a state with an overwhelmingly white population, are cause for a media frenzy and a full-blown political crisis. While the problems for black voters never seem to elicit such reactions, they persist long after the initial coverage. Too often, when electoral mishaps land on the historically marginalized, as a country our response is to shrug. There’s no outpouring of anger or disappointment. There’s no call for a national conversation to fix this epidemic of mismanagement and disenfranchisement.
Technical glitches temporarily stopped voting at eight precincts in Durham, N.C., on Election Day in 2016, but the outrage was muted. Thirty-seven percent of Durham County’s registered voters are black and situated in a swing state that President Trump won — but Democrats did not expend a fraction of the energy worrying about North Carolina that they have about Iowa this past week.
In Florida, individual counties have to purchase their election equipment (other states split the cost with the counties), so poorer counties and precincts have fewer and older machines. That has never been front-page news, even when we see the consequences in long lines — which are estimated to have kept hundreds of thousands from voting in the last presidential election. A 2019 review of recent academic studies found that across America, voters of color waited in line about twice as long as white voters did.
Even when the franchise is secured, obstacles are immediately placed in front of new voters. Activists in Florida won a significant victory, after decades of hard work, when in 2018 voters passed a constitutional amendment to end state laws that permanently disenfranchised felons, even after they had completed their sentences. The amendment restored voting rights to more than 1 million people, fully one-third of whom are black. In fact, before passage of Amendment 4, about 1 in 4 black people in Florida were disenfranchised because of felony convictions.
But then the state’s Republican legislature passed, and our governor signed, a new law that requires ex-felons to pay any outstanding fines or fees ordered by the court before they can register. This functions as a poll tax that, of course, most heavily affects Florida’s people of color, since the poverty rates in our communities are higher. But Florida’s voting rules received decidedly less outcry and criticism — from Democrats as well as the media.
To win in November, Democrats will need to harness the outrage and opprobrium surrounding the Iowa caucuses for a battle against voter suppression across the nation, because the places being targeted are the places that will decide the 2020 election. Already, senseless voter-suppression laws have been blocked or overturned in states like North Carolina, Texas and Michigan. The House has passed legislation that would restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were dismantled by the Supreme Court in 2013; it awaits action on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s desk.
The real lesson of this year’s Iowa caucuses: All of our voices can be heard only if elections are easy to access, open to everyone and strongly protected by law. That means the outrage can’t be confined to Iowa.