Democracy on the Line

Inside the fight to protect every vote.

For months leading up to the election, President Trump spared no opportunity to spew baseless claims about mass voter fraud and sow unrest about the democratic process. It was a familiar tone. On the campaign trail in his first run, he continually complained the election was “rigged” against him. Even after he won the electoral college and assumed office in 2016, he insisted he only lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally.

As the 2020 election drew nearer with Biden up in the polls and state’s expanding mail-in voting to protect voters from the rising threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump amplified his attacks, filing a slew of lawsuits that claimed absentee ballots would lead to mass fraud. In the first presidential debate with now President-elect Joe Biden, he rambled on about mail-in-ballots cast in his favor found in “rivers” and “creeks” and encouraged his supporters to loiter at polling locations to “watch carefully” for fraudulent activity. Then, breaking precedent with every incumbent and presidential candidate before him, he refused to agree to apeaceful transition of power.

There wasn’t—and still isn’t—evidence that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud. Data did show, however, that Democratic voters were far outpacing Republican voters in requesting absentee ballots. And rather than acknowledge he might lose the election, he tried to set democratic norms and institutions ablaze.

Although Trump’s antics were of little surprise to us at the ACLU, they were, nevertheless, deeply concerning. A healthy democracy depends on free and fair elections. Already, states across the country unfairly disenfranchise voters, especially people of color, poor people, and elderly people, through various voter suppression tactics like mandatory photo ID laws, shortened early voting periods, limited absentee voting, voter purges, reduced polling sites, and laws that prevent people with felony convictions from voting. The result is a severely compromised democracy that does not reflect the will of the American people. In undermining people’s faith in the electoral process and encouraging his supporters to intimidate voters, Trump threatened to further suppress electoral participation.

The ACLU was prepared for this moment. As Trump spent his time peddling conspiracy theories and denigrating our democracy, the ACLU launched an ambitious campaign to ensure every eligible voter was heard and counted.

Made for this moment

In the lead up to the election, the ACLU national office and ACLU affiliates went to court in 20 states and Puerto Rico, winning 26 victories to safeguard the voting rights of millions of Americans. We successfully fought familiar attempts at voter disenfranchisement, such as unnecessary barriers to registration, automatic voter purges based on erroneous information, and needless voter identification requirements.

"As Trump spent his time peddling conspiracy theories and denigrating our democracy, the ACLU launched an ambitious campaign to ensure every eligible voter was heard and counted."

To ensure every American could access the ballot without having to compromise their health, we filed lawsuits in Missouri, Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, and South Carolina, helping win victories to expand vote-by-mail eligibility to all voters in each of the five states. In Tennessee, we successfully sued to expand vote-by-mail eligibility to those with underlying medical conditions and those who care for people with underlying medical conditions, and in Puerto Rico, to everyone over 60. We also went after state laws that require voters casting their ballots by mail to have someone as a witness when they complete their ballots and provide a witness signature, winning victories in Virginia, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Alaska.

Fortunately, New Mexico allows every eligible voter who wants one to request a mail-in ballot, and has a significant period of time dedicated to early in person voting beginning in October. While this meant people didn’t have to choose between their health and their vote, New Mexico is not immune to voter suppression efforts, and we were prepared to fight tooth and nail to defend people’s access to the ballot.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the ACLU communications team educated voters about important deadlines for registering, requesting and returning absentee ballots, and voting early. We also provided them with the tools to cast an informed vote by elevating the key issues at play in the race and educated them on their voting rights. Many of our members and supporters responded to our work with enthusiasm, volunteering as non-partisan poll monitors when we put out the call. Over 1,000 people, across every New Mexico county, signed up to help protect the integrity of our elections.

At the same time, our legal team reached out and partnered with local attorneys to get as many hands on deck should a need for litigation arise. They not only sponsored a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) presentation, led by Daniel Ivey-Soto, to train legal professionals on New Mexico election law, but they also worked with Common Cause New Mexico to staff a nonpartisan voter protection hotline to assist voters encountering problems orirregularities when voting. ACLU attorneys prepared precautionary litigation in anticipation of political intimidation, fielded calls, helped answer voters’ questions, and drove out to polling locations when they received reports of voter intimidation.

When Trump tried to halt the count of millions of mail-in ballots, the ACLU deployed lawyers, organizers, and advocates across all 50 states to make sure that every eligible voter’s ballot was counted and to ensure the will of the American people was not subverted.

The promise of democracy

As of this writing—though Donald Trump has lost the election and the formal transition process has begun—he has still refused to acknowledge defeat. Instead, Trump, and many of his political allies, are desperately clinging to baseless claims of mass voter fraud, even though every single legal challenge filed has failed to produce a shred of evidence.

"Democracy works better when more people participate in it."

Trump’s continued denigration of democratic norms ultimately won’t stop Joe Biden from assuming power. But his rattling of people’s faith in our entire electoral system will reverberate for some time. His political allies in states across the nation will undoubtedly seize upon this uncertainty to justify introducing more and more laws that disenfranchise voters.

One thing is clear: the ACLU will fight to not only block voter suppression efforts, but to expand voter participation. Because democracy works better when more people participate in it.

The national ACLU and state affiliates will work in coordination to:

  • Dismantle a patchwork of laws that prevent approximately six million Americans with felony and, in several states, misdemeanor convictions from voting.These laws date back to the Jim Crow era and were intended to prevent Black people from voting and to protect White minority rule. While New Mexico allows people who complete their sentences to vote, our state prevents people currently serving sentences from participating in democracy. We’ll work to ensure that incarcerated people are not stripped of their fundamental right to vote as a form of punishment.
  • End unnecessary voter ID laws that disenfranchise people of color, transgender people, people with disabilities, people with low-income, and elderly people, who frequently have difficulty obtaining IDs, because they cannot afford or cannot obtain the underlying documents required to obtain government-issued photo ID cards, or, because of backward laws that do not allow gender changes on official IDs.

  • Expand automatic and same-day registration, in-person early voting, and no-excuse absentee voting.

  • Mobilize supporters to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would update the Voting Rights Act to ensure equal voting participation for all Americans and undo the damage inflicted by the Supreme Court in 2013, when it gutted vital protections against discrimination guarenteed in the historic 1965 law.

Undoubtedly, self-serving and un-American politicians will continue to try to manipulate political outcomes in their favor. But the ACLU will be there every step of the way to stop them. Nothing is more fundamental to our democracy than the right to choose our elected leaders and, ultimately, the America we want to live in. A record number of people braved a global pandemic for this promise. We will never stop fighting to ensure that the rightto participate in democracy is not reserved for a privileged minority, but for all of us.