By Arkee Escalera
On Wednesday, October 10th, the Waller County Sheriff’s Department in Hempstead, Texas confirmed that Jacob Aronowitz, a campaign staffer for Democratic congressional hopeful Mike Siegel, had been arrested. Aronowitz was delivering a letter to the Waller County Elections Administrative office, one that demanded the county update the voter registration status of students who attend Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university.
The letter was written in response to Election Administrator Christy Eason’s sudden decision to require the university’s students to fill out “change of address” forms in order to vote on campus. Aronowitz was arrested after taking a phone photo of the clerk after she accepted the letter from him, which he wanted as proof that the office received the letter. After being held for two hours, he was released, but officials kept his phone.
Many of Prairie View A&M’s 9,000 students—82% of whom are black, according to data from Spring 2018—were confused as to why the validity of their registrations was being questioned in the first place. Back in 2016, university officials agreed with the county and local political parties that the students would list either 100 University Drive or 700 University Drive as their address when registering to vote; students at the school did not have individual mailboxes, so this was a vital solve. And now, without warning, thousands of potential voters who adhered to an agreement suddenly saw their rights in jeopardy.
What else is new?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes and other financial and educational barriers that had prevented black Americans in the South from voting. Yet 53 years later, those rights are still being threatened. Whether it’s in Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio, Alabama, Iowa—throw a dart at the map, really—thinly-veiled laws and tactics across the country (often in states and counties that have historically voted Republican) are sharply aimed at keeping younger voters and voters of color (who statistically lean Democrat) away from the polls.
“The biggest thing young people need to understand is that a lot of people are working very very hard to stop them from voting, because they know how powerful young people are,” says Kat Calvin, founder of Spread the Vote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit nationwide organization that combats legislation, primarily Voter ID laws, that prevent people from voting. “Young people have a longer future to think about than anyone, [and] every single election could be decided by 18-year-olds.”
In 2013, Shelby County v. Holder was a landmark case in which the United States Supreme Court declared two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional. One of those provisions required federal permission to change voting laws and practices; without it, states have been free to alter their voting practices as they see fit. Since the ruling, states like Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Arizona have taken action. The result has led to over 1,000 polling places being shut down over the last five years—largely in primarily black communities—among other strategies that hinder voters, including redrawing state voting districts, altering polling place hours, ending same-day voter registration and pre-registration before turning 18, and implementing Voter ID laws.
Fighting against lawmakers and policy can feel like an uphill battle, but Calvin is determined to do something about this. Spread The Vote’s local chapters in states like Georgia, Florida and Tennessee ensure potential voters have the proper identification needed to register. “I can’t live comfortably in a country where everyone is not free,” she says, “and voting is the first step to exercising freedom. [There are] common sense ways to make sure that people could vote that no one was addressing, and I felt it was my responsibility to fix it.”
Below, six key ways to do your part in making sure your vote counts:
Make sure you know the proper identification, documents and deadlines required in your state to vote. Every state operates differently in regards to voter registration (which can allow voter suppression to thrive). How to Vote has everything you need to know about the how to register in your state, and if you're lacking documents or the resources to get them, contact Spread the Vote for help.
Verify your registration status, especially if you’ve recently had a change in address. Sites like +1 The Vote allow you to make sure you’re properly registered, and you can even encourage your friends to check their registration status.
Check on friends and family members to make sure they’re squared away, too. Once you're all set, pay it forward and make sure those close to you are also properly registered. That's what our campaign +1 the Vote is all about.
Know your polling place's location and hours to plan ahead on Election Day. You can't vote if you don't know where to go, and How to Vote is an easy way to check your registration, location and the hours of operation for your polling place. Additionally, your employer can’t stop you from voting; most states actually have laws designed to help you make it to the polls, even if your polling place’s voting window falls within work hours. Check your state’s laws here.
Do your research before you vote! Though there are often similar stances shared by members of a particular party, you should know the candidates and their viewpoints on policies and national issues that can affect you and your family.
Make a party out of it! Vote Together allows you to plan events in your area to make voting fun. If the promise of being an integral part of our nation's democracy doesn't sound enticing enough, maybe free drinks and food will do the trick.