Since the United States’ founding, our elections have been fraught with fraud, abuses of power, and the suppression of particular voices. After the enactment of the 15th amendment, which granted the right to vote to former slaves and people of color, numerous measures were put forth to suppress the votes of communities of color. In recent decades, such efforts have come in the form of strict voter ID laws, cuts to early voting days, and purges of voter rolls, to name a few. As certain legislators seek to capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic to further suppress the votes of historically marginalized populations, colleges and universities must ask themselves: Are we going to perpetuate voter suppression, or are we going to stand against it?
It’s no secret that voter suppression efforts are at-hand in what will be one of the most contentious elections in recent years. During the Spring primaries, at what we thought was the height of the pandemic, Republicans in Wisconsin refused to allow an all-absentee-ballot election and forced citizens to vote in-person, despite the 7,000+ election workers who refused to staff precincts. In turn, the reduction in polling sites during this pandemic has largely been at the detriment of communities of color, with one report finding that Black voters were those most disproportionately affected by the response in Wisconsin.
President Donald Trump has led the charge against mail-in voting during the pandemic, claiming that mail-in voting only perpetuates voter fraud despite evidence that says otherwise. However, without mail-in voting, many Americans will be unable, or unwilling, to vote this election cycle due to the health risks they face if they were to vote in person and due to limited availability of polling places – the latter of which threatens the rights of college students across the nation.
Although the 18-24 age group has historically had the lowest voter turnout, the past few election cycles have indicated an increase in voting for this age group – an increase which may be attributed to the work being done on college campuses across the nation. Indeed, in 2018, college students turned out to vote at double the rate than they had in the 2014 midterm elections. Undoubtedly, having polling sites on college campuses plays a large role in whether students vote – especially given that election day falls on a Tuesday each year, a day when many students may be stuck on campus due to course commitments. Although, it is worth noting that even having a polling location on campus is often a privilege reserved for predominantly White institutions.
However, even that privilege is at risk during this pandemic, as some, perhaps many, colleges and universities look to close their campus polling sites due to COVID-19. One such institution was the University of Georgia, which recently announced that it would not be hosting a polling site on its campus and instead referred students to find a polling site off-campus or downtown. While the risk of COVID-19 spreading serves as a reasonable excuse, when I first heard this announcement, I couldn’t help but think: Why didn’t the institution consider this risk when they insisted on holding in-person classes this semester? And why didn’t they consider this risk when they insisted on having a football season?
Upwards of 23,000 fans are expected for the University of Georgia’s first home game on October 3rd – a month before the election. In their announcement, the institution claimed it could take measures to separate fans in a football stadium, however, it could not accommodate students seeking to exercise their constitutional rights. In turn, the institution failed its own mission – a commitment “to address the strategic needs of the state of Georgia” – when it determined it could host a football game every Saturday but could not support the state’s most basic democratic process which happens once a year.
After much public outcry, the University of Georgia reversed course a few days later, acknowledging that its basketball arena will remain an early polling site. However, its initial decision still serves as an example of how higher education institutions may perpetuate voter suppression – all during a contentious national election and under the veil of protecting students whom have already been exposed to unnecessary risk. During this pandemic, it is vital that colleges and universities are not only aware of ongoing voter suppression efforts in their respective communities but that they are not further perpetuating such efforts themselves. Instead, institutions should leverage their positions to remove barriers to voting and strive to develop engaged citizens for the future.
Tyler Hallmark is currently a Ph.D. candidate at The Ohio State University.