by Andi Pringle
Voter suppression used to be largely structural, with efforts cloaked in fake laws and rules made up to justify the closure of polling places, the purging of voters from the rolls, and the spread of voter ID requirements. But this year, the Republican party is relying on psychological voter suppression—and it might work.
What is psychological voter suppression? It’s when those who want to suppress the vote realize that physical and structural barriers aren’t enough so they come for your mind, too. While the mass removal of sorting machines from the U.S. Postal Service may physically impede the delivery of ballots, this tactic is being deployed alongside the message that opposition voters can’t overcome corruption. The message infects our psyches with hopelessness, disenchantment and despair, telling us that our votes don’t matter and our efforts to overcome barriers will fail. The chilling effect is that those who most need and want change may resign themselves to the status quo and simply stay home.
Mind tricks might sound like an easy barrier to overcome, but that’s a position for the privileged who don’t also face structural barriers. Imagine that you, like millions of Americans, live in a precinct where polling places have been dramatically reduced. You have to miss work to vote, which means lost pay. You have to find transportation to your new, far-away polling place, which costs money. You also have to stand in line for hours, which means someone has to watch your kids while you’re gone. And this year, you have to come prepared to deal with the threat of a deadly virus that has killed 180,000 Americans already. Now, as if those obstacles weren’t enough, you’re bombarded with the message that your vote may not even count. If it were just structural suppression, you might find a way around it. But if Republicans can convince you that it’s a waste of your time, why bother?
Psychological voter suppression isn’t new. From the moment people of color were given the right to vote, others have been intimidating them out of trying. Young people—who are so frequently told they don’t vote that it turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy—are subjected to both physical and psychological voter suppression in every election cycle. What’s new is both the amount of psychological suppression happening now and the brazen openness of it. Donald Trump is fomenting a sense of distrust in the electoral process, refusing to say that he’ll accept the outcome of the election if he loses. He warns against the legitimacy of mail-in voting—a long-trusted institution in America—and then advises people to avoid ballot collection boxes for fear of COVID-19. In other words, he’s working his hardest to make sure people believe the only way to vote is to show up on November 3, no matter the cost—and simultaneously working hard to make sure they don’t bother.
It’s clear that we are barreling toward a Constitutional catastrophe in November unless Americans take action now. What does that action look like? Our country needs an unprecedented level of grassroots coordination on the ground and an army of committed, trained protectors who defend not only voters but the vote and democracy itself. We need young, healthy individuals to mask up and volunteer to take the place of the older poll workers who have faithfully worked on Election Days past but are justifiably worried about their safety in a pandemic. We need creativity around registering new voters when we can’t physically knock on doors for fear of sickness. And we need every voter to use the power of their voice to call, email, text and protest.
I know people are tired. Living through four years under an increasingly authoritarian regime that devalues not just civil rights but also human life is enough to make anybody tired. The battle for the mind is a subtle warfare with crude results.
But this isn’t just a fight for the future of democracy; it’s a fight for optimism. These mind tricks are designed to make us feel that the very foundation of our country is, at best, a failed experiment or, at worst, a lie. The fatigue, the crippling anxiety, the complacency and despair—those feelings are the goal of psychological voter suppression.
But we must persist. This is the home stretch, and everything we do between now and November 3 will determine whether we have a democracy to wake up to. If we can’t fight back and overcome every form of suppression, including the psychological, we will lose so much more than an election.
Andi Pringle is the Director of Strategic & Political Campaigns with March On. To make a difference and join March On’s Voter Protection Corps, visit www.wearemarchon.org/vpc .
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