UC Berkeley professors talk voter suppression, mail-in ballots

Photo of an individual placing their ballot in a ballot drop box
Brian Bi/File
UC Berkeley law professor Bertrall Ross said the upcoming November election will take place in a more polarized environment than the nation has seen in a long time.

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According to some UC Berkeley professors, supporters of President Donald Trump are engaged in an effort to suppress voters in marginalized communities and swing the upcoming election in his favor.

False fraud claims about mail-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic may discourage mail-in voting, which is predominantly favored by Democrats, according to Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy. Terri Bimes, a campus political science associate teaching professor, expressed worry that Trump’s rhetoric regarding far-right groups and police presence at polls might intimidate underrepresented minority voters.

The professors noted that voter suppression tactics range from misinformation to intimidation. Brady added that some common tactics used in voter suppression include purging voter rolls of those who have not voted recently, limiting the time or place where people can vote, ID requirements and felon disenfranchisement.

“Part of the issue here is the partisan difference on how to think about this problem. Republicans are quite willing to restrict the vote and indeed have theories about how that’s a good idea, that it should be hard to vote,” Brady alleged.

Campus law professor Bertrall Ross said voter suppression is being enacted through misinformation on social media in terms of how, when and where to vote, inaccurate claims being spread about the opposing candidate and intimidation at the polls, which has been recently carried out by Trump supporters mostly in underrepresented minority communities.

Ross noted that this is the first election in which the legitimacy of the results is being questioned before the outcome has even been determined. Trump’s claim that mail-in ballots are highly fraudulent, which is not supported by evidence, has misled voters, according to Ross.

Additionally, Ross said this election will take place in a more polarized environment than the nation has seen in a long time. This polarization goes beyond ideology to a difference in belief in facts, according to Ross.

“This fundamental disagreement about facts poses a unique threat to this election,” Ross said.

Ross added that voter suppression does not significantly affect California since it is more obvious that electoral votes will go to Democratic candidate Joe Biden. However, Ross does see California coming into play if there is a situation similar to 2016 in which Trump loses the popular vote.

In 2016, much of Trump’s rhetoric centered around claims of voter fraud by illegal immigrants, rhetoric that, according to Ross, may be used again in the future to delegitimize results.

Brady also noted that voter suppression is not as widespread in California, and he said it will likely occur in states such as Florida, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Bimes cited the example of a voter suppression tactic in Florida in which felons cannot vote until they have paid back all of their outstanding court fees. This affects Black voters more than white voters, Bimes said.

Since Florida is a swing state, former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg paid off Florida felons’ fines in an effort to help them vote, Bimes added.

“It’s ridiculous that we have to depend on a billionaire to come in and save the day,” Bimes said.

Bimes worries that after Trump’s comments during the recent presidential debate — namely phrases such as “stand back and stand by” in reference to the far-right group Proud Boys — as well as discussions about bringing sheriffs to monitor election sites, underrepresented minority voters might be intimidated and decide not to vote.

Absentee ballots are also a concern for this election, Bimes added. Regulations regarding these ballots vary by state, so Bimes suggests voting early. With early voting, if there is an issue with an absentee ballot, some states can reach out to the voter and ask them to correct any mistakes, she said.

“We need to be vigilant. The 2020 election is going to be litigious,” Bimes said. “We need to have an education campaign on how to cast a vote, how to vote early and how to make a vote count.”

Contact Mela Seyoum and Anishi Patel at [email protected].