Voter suppression is also a public health crisis

Illustration of people in line, at a polling place, next to a sign reading "Vote Here".
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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As in recent election cycles, the 2020 election saw numerous reports of widespread voter suppression, both blatant and subtle, across the United States. Although voter suppression is a pervasive issue — and one that’s been ongoing for centuries — it remains difficult to quantify exactly how many voters may have been intentionally blocked from voting this election cycle. 

Voter suppression was especially concerning this year in swing states such as Florida, where communities of color — particularly Black voters, who tend to vote strongly for the Democratic party — have historically been deterred from voting.

Voter suppression in the United States has its roots in racism and white supremacy, dating back to the Jim Crow era and earlier. Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation and also enacted poll taxes, which effectively prevented many low-income individuals, and a disproportionate number of Black people, from voting. 

Many of these laws still exist in various forms. Before 2018, people who had been convicted of felonies in Florida were blocked from voting for life. The reversal of this law in 2018 with Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution was pivotal, taking a step toward rectifying at least one aspect of the racist history of voter suppression.

But this rectification was unfortunately short-lived. In June 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law requiring former felons to pay off any outstanding fines, restitution or legal fees — some justifiably refer to this as a modern-day poll tax — before regaining their right to vote. The initiative was upheld in September, two months before the November election, and it blocked an estimated 1.4 million former felons in Florida from casting their vote, ultimately leaving only 300,000 individuals that were even able to legally register to vote.

Because Black and Brown individuals are disproportionately represented in the U.S. penal system, this initiative effectively diminishes their electoral impact. 

So, how does voter suppression constitute a public health crisis? 

Systemic barriers that prevent individuals from voting largely impact Black and Brown communities in the United States. The same communities that face voter suppression also face inordinately high COVID-19 mortality rates, lack of access to health care, discrimination in the medical infrastructure and unequal access to nutrition. Many of these inequities are rooted in long-standing systemic racism that is, in part, also perpetuated by a lack of equal representation in government.

For example, in the 2014 election for Florida governor, Rick Scott beat the Democratic candidate, Charlie Crist, by a small margin. Scott, a Republican, subsequently sidestepped Medicaid expansion in the state of Florida. This refusal to expand Medicaid has continued under the DeSantis administration. Had Charlie Crist been elected, Medicaid may have been expanded in the state, giving health care access to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults. 

Today, Medicaid has yet to be expanded in Florida. As a result, many individuals who demographically have the highest incidence of chronic health problems and are also established to be at the greatest risk in the pandemic are left with no realistic access to health care. In the absence of adequate coverage, health complications only worsen. It becomes a vicious cycle.  

Without equal representation in government — the entity that largely determines availability and access to resources, such as basic health care coverage — one is systematically and, arguably, intentionally disadvantaged.

Voter suppression exacerbates long-standing racial and socioeconomic inequalities by selectively diminishing the opportunity to use our democratic process to effect change by voting for candidates who will protect our most fundamental human rights.

The pandemic further underscores the urgent need for all individuals to have equal representation in a government that will serve their needs and the public health needs of their communities. To be the only country in the industrialized world that aids and abets a system that leaves a significant portion of our highest risk citizens without any health insurance is unconscionable. 

We don’t fully know how voter suppression influenced this year’s election cycle. But policies that are an outgrowth of voter suppression and systemic racism have tangible legislative and economic ripple effects. Unless it is identified, called out and addressed, voter suppression will continue to exist in myriad forms for elections to come as a way to minimize the Black and Brown vote and, as a result, further marginalize these populations. 

Our Constitution was originally constructed to afford only white, male property owners the right to vote. But it seems self-evident that a fair election and a functioning democracy should uplift the voice of all citizens regardless of race or socioeconomic status. 

Those of us who do have the privilege and ability to vote must do what we can to ensure we vote for progressive leaders who are mindful of our nation’s history and its impact on our current democratic process.

Samantha Derrick is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying public health with a focus on nutrition. Samantha is a Florida resident, where she was born and raised.