How to discuss voter suppression

Posted on Tue, Oct 30, 2012

Tags: election administration, election law, tips, voter contact

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The Brennan Center for Justice and Advancement Project have teamed up to engage in extensive public opinion research to hone our messaging about new laws that make it harder for millions of Americans to register and vote.  Below are some shortcuts to help guide you as you continue the conversation about voting. 

One key:: don't be overly negative. While discussing new restrictions is important so voters understand the changed landscape in their state, it's more crucial than ever to keep voters enthusiastic and encourage voter participation

  1. Don't say voter suppression. Don't assume that the average voter is already aware of, or worked up about, these laws. Use simple, clear language to explain why new restrictive voting laws are harmful, by explaining that restrictive laws make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to have their say on Election Day. Voters bristle when they understand that these new laws reduce opportunities for all Americans: especially seniors, veterans, and folks who have been hardest hit by the economic downturn. 
  2. Call out politicians. Americans aren't happy with politicians right now - full stop.  And voters get especially angry when they find out that politicians are manipulating the voting rules for partisan gain. There are plenty of examples of politicians targeting specific blocs of voters - for example, by creating purge lists, or admitting that photo ID laws will help a particular candidate win. Explaining that politicians are gaming our system convinces voters that these new laws are illegitimate.
  3. Use values-based language. Engage voters on their core values-like responsibility, fairness, equality, and freedom. Voters rightly believe that the U.S. is the world's leading democracy and deserves an election system that befits that status: one that's free, fair, and accessible to all Americans. Praise our system and invoke the American civic creed that we are all created equal.
  4. Tell a story to evoke those values. No matter what party voters are from, or where they say they are on photo ID, humanizing the impacts of unfair voting restrictions resonates. Provide personal examples of voters who took their civic duty to vote seriously and were then thwarted by unfair laws. Like 93-year old Thelma Mitchell, who can't get a photo ID now required by Tennessee law-and as a result may not vote for the first time in decades.
  5. Repeat it - again and again! It takes repetition, repetition, repetition to really change the public conversation. Find ways to incorporate the tips above into your messaging, pick the strongest message you can, rinse, and repeat!

Have questions about discussing voter suppression, ID laws, and other legal issues with your constituents? Ask them in the comments!

Lee Rowland is Counsel on the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law

PS -- Not sure what the election laws are in your state? Find out everything you need to know from the Organizer's Guide to Election Administration, our free, 50-state guide to election law for organizers. (Also available in Spanish here)

Photo from Dwight Evans for Mayor, via Creative Commons

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