Understanding Voting Rights with Maya Contreras

Maya Contreras BELatina Latinx

Voting rights advocate Maya Contreras has been talking about voter suppression and disenfranchisement long before this unique election cycle. As a multi-faceted artist who’s passionate about social justice, she not only co-founded the All Women’s Party but she’s also taken on the task of advocating and informing folks on the importance voting has on their future. As a result, she started a series called Voting in the Time of COVID where she breaks down the different aspects of voting processes during this era.

As part of her efforts to mobilize and inform communities, she’s hosting an all-day voter talk online on July 27. She plans to talk about the logistics around this year’s voting process including deadlines to register to vote, the ways the public can push for more voting locations, and the resources available to empower folks to make informed decisions.

BELatina sat down with Contreras to talk about the experiences and the knowledge that shaped her decision to start these initiatives, and what her role is as an advocate within these larger conversations around voter suppression in the time of COVID-19.

Voter suppression and how it manifests

Contreras defines voter suppression as a legal or illegal way of stopping eligible voters from reaching the ballot box, casting their ballot, or having access to it in the first place. Some of the tactics used to actually do this are disenfranchisement, racial or prison gerrymandering, poll tax imposition on communities that can’t afford it, processes that force folks to spend their entire day at the DMV to get their voter ID, and misinformation. 

“Misinformation is the newest tactic which, although it’s always been used, it hadn’t been weaponized in the way it has now,” said Contreras. “Lying about your opponent is a way to do it, or telling folks that their vote is not valuable is also a voter suppression tactic.”

One of the biggest questions around this topic is, why would someone want to suppress votes? According to Contreras, it boils down to the Republican Party’s business interests. “It’s not really about a label, it’s more about profit,” she explains. “If you introduce policies that create equity and equal access, their profits go down because you’re paying people living wages.”

The current conditions of the country give a new opportunity to suppress the vote. Although many communities need the in-person voting format, some groups are using social distancing measures to their advantage by disproportionately closing voting locations and railing against vote-by-mail. Her series Voting in the Time of COVID was born out of the understanding that there were already obstacles to be dealt with, and the pandemic brought out new ones. 

What it looked like before, what it looks like now

As Contreras recounts, the United States has over 100 years’ worth of history in which the vote is constantly suppressed over time. “We know that up until the enactment of the 15th amendment, Black people couldn’t vote at all. Then, the 19th amendment comes along and white women can vote but Black women can’t. Later, we don’t really have the ability to see Native and Latinx folks vote until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Disabled people weren’t able to vote until the 1990s when The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was passed.”

Some of its most prominent forms date back to the Reconstruction Era when Mississippi’s constitution was designed to keep Black people out of the state political process. In an attempt to make sure that the Black men who were holding positions in public office were out of power as soon as possible, white supremacy was prioritized in their constitution. A key provision in their 1890 Constitution indicated that people needed to be able to read in order to vote, which meant that thousands of illiterate Black folks were unable to.

“White people knew that if you looked at the demographics of what disenfranchised communities are suffering under and what the systems had placed on them, they could use that to their advantage,” explained Contreras.  

In today’s context, this translates into establishing poll taxes that BIPOC communities can’t afford or imposing processes that require taking days off when people can barely fit all their responsibilities in a day as it is. Meanwhile, disabled communities face another difficulty: ADA compliance at a voting location is hard to enforce. Complaining that a facility fails to comply with the guidelines the regulation dictates ultimately results in the closure of that location. In the end, it perpetuates one of the tactics that Contreras mentioned is used to suppress the vote. 

“Before 2013, you had to have federal oversight to close a voting location. When a section of the Voting Rights Act was gutted, you suddenly didn’t need approval from the federal government anymore. Within 24 hours of the VRA’s collapse, Texas started a massive voting suppression effort. That’s what it was like before COVID-19.”

Current obstacles

Contreras emphasized the struggle in getting people to recognize that their individual votes are valuable. Among the difficulties of being an advocate raising these issues is that many don’t see themselves as part of a voting culture, especially when they feel that change isn’t happening in their communities. So, while voter suppression is a major issue, the certain level of denial that exists when thinking that protesting is the only solution to ratify change also becomes a challenge. 

Alongside this, the two-party system also steers people away from getting involved in these conversations. Because people want choice, it becomes disheartening to know their decision boils down to two options, especially when third-party voting has become frowned upon. 

The hope

As Election Day approaches during a time when unprecedented measures are being put in place for safety, it’s important to have all the essential information needed to be able exercise one’s right to vote justly and safely. 

“I want everyone to think of themselves as a voting rights advocate. They can add it to whatever else they care about,” said Contreras. “If you become a voting rights advocate, we can build more choice and bring more attention to these issues. Unless we’re voting in large numbers, we can’t hold people accountable or kick them out of office. We need to think of voting as a way to hold people accountable, get the bills that matter passed, and shape America in the way a lot of us would like to see it.”