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A Look At Voter Suppression Tactics Ahead Of The Election

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the last few years, a number of states have made aggressive efforts to purge voting rolls and to make more demands of people trying to register to vote, including demanding specific kinds of ID. Historically, these efforts have tended to disproportionately affect less affluent voters and voters of color. That's why civil rights activists and lawyers have called these campaigns of voter suppression.

We've called Kristen Clarke to talk about this. She is the president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. That's a group that was founded at the request of then-President John F. Kennedy to marshal legal talent to challenge civil rights abuses. And she's here with us now to talk more about that work.

Kristen Clarke, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

KRISTEN CLARKE: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Well, when people think of voter suppression, they might think about what they remember from the '40s and '50s, like violence, people being threatened or even beaten if they tried to vote. And I think most people would say or believe that that doesn't happen anymore. So would you tell us as briefly as you can what you call voter suppression in 2020? What does that look like?

CLARKE: Yeah. Well, voter suppression is most certainly alive and well and has taken on a slightly different form. Today, we see suppression efforts in the form of purging of the rolls, moving polling sites to hostile locations, shutting down polling sites, making it harder for people to register to vote by imposing new 11th-hour requirements. And often, these efforts tend to impact and burden certain people more than others - Black voters, Latino voters, Native Americans, students and others.

MARTIN: Many people might not remember this, but in the 1980s, a consent decree blocked the Republican National Committee from posting armed off-duty law enforcement at polling stations in minority neighborhoods. It also prevented them from sending targeted mailings to African Americans about penalties for violating voting laws - mailings which were not sent to predominately white neighborhoods, it has to be said.

That decree expired at the end of 2017 because the Democrats couldn't argue that this behavior had continued and that the Republicans had been in compliance. And so the judge said - allowed the order to expire. How much of a game-changer is this? Do you think the expiration of the consent decree is that relevant?

CLARKE: It is. That consent decree proved to be an important deterrent towards officials who often try these scare tactics aimed at discouraging and deterring people from coming out and participating. But we know historically that using law enforcement and calling law enforcement out to the polls has been a scare tactic largely aimed at voters of color.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about that a minute, though. Why are you persuaded by that? Because you could see where other people might argue that given that there has been a lot of restiveness in the street - we've seen, you know, clashes between different groups and different communities over certain issues - I mean, what persuades you that this is actually meant to be intimidating as opposed to create a more orderly environment?

CLARKE: I'll tell you a story from not too long ago. Macon-Bibb County, Ga. - officials there sought to move a polling site from a majority-Black school to the local sheriff's office. And Black folks in that area spoke out immediately to say, look - this is not a place where people are going to be - you know, feel encouraged or feel that they can openly cast their ballot. Officials would not relent. And so we were able to go in and work with the community and got that site ultimately moved to a majority-Black church.

But it's kind of an old and familiar tactic. But the last thing that we want on Election Day is for voters to feel that they are under siege, that they are being surveilled and watched. We want polling sites to be open, free and fair environments where people can cast their ballots and have their voice heard.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we're about seven weeks away from the election. How would you describe your priorities for these weeks going into the November election?

CLARKE: We're fighting in states that continue to use the pandemic as a reason to make it harder for people to vote. We've got suits in states that are saying that fear of the pandemic is not a reason to get access to an absentee ballot. We're fighting states that have premature deadlines by which voters have to return their absentee ballots. We're fighting states that are requiring voters in the middle of a pandemic to notarize their absentee ballot in order for it to count.

Between now and Election Day, we're working to tear down those barriers. With close to 200,000 Americans now dead from the pandemic, we just believe that people should not be forced to choose between their health and exercising the right to vote at this moment.

MARTIN: Kristen Clarke is the president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Kristen Clarke, thanks so much for talking to us.

CLARKE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.