Patriotic Millionaires: Kentucky’s voter suppression is a national issue

Kentucky’s early counts of mail-in and in-person ballots cast during the primary election are likely to be one of the highest recorded in the state in nearly a decade. While this fact and the quick rollout of mail-in-voting are achievements to celebrate, we cannot ignore the state’s blatant, last-minute attempts to try and diminish voter turnout, especially towards voters of color.

In the weeks leading up to this election, Kentucky’s Board of Elections made the decision to reduce the number of polling locations across the state from 3,700 to just 200, and it’s no surprise that in Louisville, which holds the state’s largest Black population, voting centers were reduced to only one location for 616,000 registered voters. While this decision was made alongside an effort to increase the number of voters who cast their vote by absentee ballot  rather than in person, reducing the number of voting locations is part and parcel of a wide range of strategies that are employed to discourage voter turnout in communities of color.

Kentucky, like many southern states, still operates under one of the most suppressive voting systems in the nation. The state still lacks an early voting option, polls only remain open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and come November, voter ID laws will be mandatory statewide. And on election night we saw what the results of these disenfranchising rules can do when 50 voters found themselves locked outside the only polling station in Louisville when the doors closed promptly at 6 p.m. However, thanks to a quick injunction requested by Senate candidate Charles Booker, the polling station reopened their doors until 6:30 p.m., allowing everyone in line to cast their ballots. Although this is an uplifting story, voters should never have to worry about whether their votes will count based on when they arrived on election day.

Seemingly innocuous rules like closing polling stations at 6 p.m. are one of the many underhanded ways the GOP try to suppress people of color at the voting booth. For working families with children, making it to the polls by 6 p.m. after commuting from work can be nearly impossible. And while some folks who work in certain jobs may be able to request time off to go cast their vote, polling has found that Black and Latino voters are twice as likely to be unable to request time off work to go vote when compared to their white counterparts. These are only a handful of barriers that people of color encounter when attempting to vote.

We should not settle for a system that doles out piecemeal protections for our most  fundamental constitutional right. For a wealthy white guy like me, voting in this primary was fast and easy, and I’m not worried about whether my vote will count or not. That’s not the case for millions of people, especially Black voters. And if their vote isn’t just as safe as mine, then our whole democracy is at risk.

These efforts to disenfranchise voters are only a glimpse of what’s to come in November if we do not remain vigilant about protecting every American’s right to vote during this pandemic. President Trump and Attorney General William Barr have already started a campaign claiming mail-in-ballots are fraudulent and should not be counted, even though committing voting fraud through mail-in-ballots is incredibly rare and highly unlikely. From California to Florida, state and local RNC committees are working to stop the easement of voting restrictions in the name of protecting us against fraud, to make it as difficult as possible for Americans to cast their ballots. If voting is the way to remove the GOP from office, as so many Democrats continue to state, then let’s work to ensure that every American has the ability to do so.

Our democracy hinges on the ability of every American to be able to cast a ballot easily and safely, and this can only be possible if we ensure that every American has the option to vote in person, by mail, or absentee if they so choose. Kentucky has shown that expanding absentee and mail-in-voting is not enough to guarantee that everyone’s voice is heard – we need more options, that cover every possible barrier working people may find when trying to cast their vote. We must shine the national spotlight on every bad faith elected official who continues to support or create rules that enforce voter disenfranchisement.

Morris Pearl is a former managing director at Blackrock, Inc., and is now chair of the Patriotic Millionaires