As a wave of voter suppression bills swept across Republican-controlled states this year, President Joe Biden called the assault “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” But voting and civil rights groups say they do not see Biden’s White House doing enough in response.
The groups want Democrats to enact federal legislation like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to counter that threat. Instead, they have heard that “White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’” according to The New York Times.
Both nonpartisan and partisan groups have been trying to do that for years, or in some cases decades. And while they agree it may be possible to “out-organize voter suppression,” it takes an intensive amount of resources and time that could otherwise be directed toward other efforts.
“The White House is essentially telling organizers, ‘You got this. Just a little more time away from your family, just a little more blood, sweat and tears than what you gave to elect us, to hand us a Democratic Senate,’” said a senior Democratic operative in a state narrowly carried by Biden.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a nonpartisan nonprofit that supports voting rights legislation, sent a letter to Biden signed by more than 150 civil and voting rights organizations stating, “We cannot and should not have to organize our way out of the attacks and restrictions on voting that lawmakers are passing and proposing at the state level.”
If the For the People Act and the John Lewis voting rights bill die by filibuster, voting rights groups will be left to do just that.
What It Takes To Out-Organize Voter Suppression
The idea that political parties and nonpartisan voter mobilization groups can “out-organize voter suppression” has some basis in political science studies. A handful of studies show that voters respond to news that their demographic group is targeted by an attempt to suppress their votes with anger and countermobilization. One recent study shows that this does not apply to young voters, however, a frequent target of voter suppression bills. Such studies also do not quantify the work that goes into creating such a countermobilization.
This work, including helping voters obtain proper voter identification, contacting those purged from voter rolls, educating voters about new restrictions and requirements, and making sure their votes are counted come Election Day, costs an immense amount of time and resources.
“It’s the human capital,” said Virginia Kase Solomón, CEO of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to increase voter turnout.
There are financial costs as well: Overturning discriminatory laws usually requires lengthy court battles. It takes “millions of dollars in lawsuits,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit voter mobilization group in Georgia. “Millions of dollars in research testing messages to see what will inspire people to vote, to act, to defend their right to vote. Millions of dollars in training, hiring and deploying literally thousands of campaign and election workers and organizers and canvassers to not only register people to vote but to follow up to make sure they get on the voter rolls.”
The New Georgia Project’s network of volunteers solely devoted to voter protection stands at between 1,500 and 2,000 people to cover just 500 of the 3,000 polling locations in the state, according to Ufot.
“And that’s one state,” Ufot says.
VoteRiders, a nine-year-old national nonprofit that helps voters obtain proper voter identification, relies on more than 5,800 volunteers to help identify and aid the roughly 40 million Americans who lack government-issued photo identification and may need it to vote. The group works with hundreds of partner organizations and businesses, from local nonprofits to barber shops and beauticians to do outreach for would-be voters who need assistance.
That assistance ranges from simply educating voters about a given state’s different requirements for voter registration versus those for in-person voting, to directly helping a voter obtain the necessary documents to get their identification, to covering the cost of obtaining the necessary identification. It also involves helping voters who have the proper identification, but may simply be confused and intimidated about what they need to do to vote.
“It’s so time-intensive and resource-intensive to get voters the ID they need,” said Lauren Kunis, VoteRiders’ executive director. “This is the type of work that traditional campaigns are not going to invest their resources in.”
But that work ought to be unnecessary, voting rights advocates believe. Spending millions of dollars and recruiting thousands of volunteers to help voters navigate an often complicated bureaucratic process to obtain documents, some of which may not exist, is a waste of their time and resources.
The For the People Act as it currently stands would allow voters anywhere to sign a sworn affidavit, under felony penalty of perjury, that they are who they say they are in lieu of showing whatever identification is mandated by their state.
“Were that the law of the land, then our job would focus solely on the education and confusion factor rather than all the effort to help people and pay for people to obtain all these documents,” said Kathleen Unger, founder and president of VoteRiders.
What You Can’t Out-Organize
While politicians and groups mobilizing to overcome voter suppression laws that impose onerous identification requirements, or limit early or mail-in voting, or close polling locations can theoretically be out-organized, there are a number of challenges that cannot be fixed with organizing.
The Census Bureau will release its decennial redistricting data on Aug. 16, launching the next round of redistricting. Republicans control the redistricting process in enough states that they can gerrymander themselves a likely House majority in the 2022 midterm elections.
“How do you out-organize the drawing of trash maps?” Ufot said.
The For the People Act would take redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians by requiring states to adopt independent redistricting commissions to draw maps, as happens in seven states already.
And then there’s the issue of organizing itself. In some states, Republican-passed laws actually outlaw certain voting-related organizing functions.
“You can’t out-organize if organizing is illegal,” said Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, a Kansas-based nonprofit focused on youth voter turnout. “And that’s what they did in Kansas.”
The Republican supermajority there passed two new election laws in 2021, over the veto of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, to make it harder to vote. This came after the 2020 election in the state was well-run and featured no problems or fraud. GOP lawmakers also enacted new felony election crimes to make it harder to mobilize voters. One of the laws in question, HB 2183, includes a provision making it a felony to be “engaging in conduct that would cause another person to believe a person engaging in such conduct is an election official.”
“It’s anything that could make a voter perceive you to be an election official,” Hammet said.
Loud Light and the Kansas chapter of the League of Women Voters both suspended all in-person voter registration and outreach efforts because of fears that the vagueness of this law opens the door for their organizers and volunteers to be accused of committing a crime by anyone who claims to perceive them as election officials.
Complicating matters further, local Kansas election officials often request help from groups like the League of Women Voters in doing voter education when the officials are underfunded and understaffed.
“This is work that we often do with our county clerks,” said Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of League of Women Voters of Kansas. “This has been challenging in that we have a good working relationship with them and this has put a crimp in our ability to help them.”
The two groups have filed for a temporary injunction to suspend this provision as they pursue a broader lawsuit challenging the restrictive election laws passed by the Republican state Legislature.
Kansas isn’t the only state that has introduced new election crimes aimed at making it harder to help voters vote. Georgia enacted five new election crimes, including the misdemeanor crime of anyone other than a poll worker offering or giving food or drink to a voter waiting in line.
“How do you out-organize an ambitious county prosecutor who wants to make a name for themselves?” Ufot asks.
Georgia Republicans also enacted a law enabling the Republican-run state Legislature to purge election officials for any reason and replace them with preferred officials who can change the number and location of polling places and otherwise make it harder to vote or to educate voters. Republicans in the state have already begun that process to purge election officials in Fulton County, which is 44% Black and voted overwhelmingly for Biden.
That same law also allows for partisan officials to overturn election results they don’t like based on a presumption of election fraud. This was enacted despite there being no evidence of widespread voter or election fraud in the 2020 election and no record of widespread fraud in modern federal elections.
A compromise version of the For the People Act, to be released soon, is expected to include provisions to prevent states like Georgia from subverting elections by overriding results they don’t like.
Without the passage of that law, the strategy of out-organizing voter suppression would need to include out-organizing laws that make it harder to vote, harder to organize, and allow partisan Republicans to change the result in the end anyway. And this out-organizing won’t be limited to 2022, but to every future election where these laws remain on the books.