Nine Black women pose with Nannie Helen Burroughs, pioneering feminist and suffragist from Virginia, c. 1905-1915. Via Library of Congress
Voter suppression is a hot talking point these days — with good reason. In mere days, voters will elect judges, school board members, and the national leaders who will (hopefully) guide us out of this pandemic. Election outcomes will deeply affect citizens’ lives and determine where to shuffle certain powers.
It’s the desire to be the power that spurs voter suppression, or practices that intentionally discourage, restrict or prevent certain groups from voting. Enter people like Sharon Dolente, voting rights strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, who work to ensure that access to the vote is available for everyone.
In Michigan, there’s been no voting rights victory in recent history as monumental as in 2018, when the state electorate passed Proposal 3, a “Promote the Vote” ballot initiative Dolente helped craft. Since that time, many restrictions on voter registration, voter access to absentee ballots and early voting have been eliminated.
Easier access to voting is important in any election season, but in a pandemic it’s vital — and there are some particular implications for women.
Any-reason absentee voting gives voters options to vote on their own schedule without having to go to the polls on Election Day, which can be a relief for people juggling work, childcare and health concerns. Through mid-October, nearly four times as many voters in Detroit requested absentee ballots than through the same period in 2016.
“There are a lot of women who appreciate having that flexibility given the other demands on their lives,” Dolente said.
In presidential and midterm elections, women have typically turned out to vote at higher rates than men.
“The story that I go back to is one of our supporters from 2018 who is a single mom who was working two jobs and was very committed to voting,” Dolente added. “She tried her best to vote in every election. But given that she is a single mother with two jobs, getting to the polls presented a huge challenge. Because the truth is, it’s much easier to vote in your home after the kids have gone to bed at night, rather than scurry to pick the kids up, pack the kids up and haul them to the polling location after they’ve been in school all day and they’re tired and hungry. This mom was really looking forward to the ability to vote by mail because when you’re home and the kids are in bed at 9 o’clock at night, you can still perform your civic duty.”
Michigan voters aren’t immune from suppression tactics. In recent weeks, the state has seen court rulings that limit transportation access and who is allowed to return a voter’s absentee ballot, as well as blocking clerks from counting mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day.
The ACLU and other groups offer resources like a nonpartisan voter protection hotline (reach it at 866-OUR-VOTE).
“Through that hotline, we identify problems in jurisdictions and then reach out to local clerks to solve them,” Dolente said. The ACLU also works on advocacy around policies to strengthen citizens’ power to activate their right to vote.
In Dolente’s own life, she’s noticed women exercising that right. “I was texting every woman in my contacts to check if they had their ballots, and every single one of them had their ballots and was voting,” she said.
Women’s participation extends beyond the voting booth. More women are running for Congress than ever before, breaking the record set during the 2018 midterms. They’re also taking the lead in the voting access fight, as Dolente has witnessed.
“I was just on a call earlier today, and a bunch of the presenters were all women. And I thought of a time when we all would say, ‘when women lead’… This is a time when women are taking on greater leadership, and that’s something that I am supportive of, and I’m enjoying watching that process evolve, because I think it’ll be good for our state and our country.”