“The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.”
—John Lewis.1Ari Berman, “John Lewis’ Legacy Is the Right to Vote. And It’s Under Attack,” Mother Jones, July 18, 2020.
In March 2021, Georgia Republicans passed a sweeping 98-page voting law introducing a range of provisions to curtail voting rights, including more stringent voter ID requirements. Significant among these rigid requirements was the particular focus on limiting ballot access for voters in urban areas, noted for predominantly housing Democrats and communities of color. As Governor Brian Kemp explained of the legislation, it would make it “harder to cheat” in elections, a common political refrain in debates over voter ID legislation, which mischaracterizes voter fraud as a common occurrence, even though research by the Brennan Center has found that incident rates are between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.2“Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 31, 2017. Coalitions of civil rights organizations and faith leaders organized in reaction to the “antidemocratic” voting law, protesting outside the state house and calling for a boycott of major corporations housed in Georgia. National news was abuzz with debates over this latest “assault on democracy.” But the stakes were perhaps highest for those most precarious under the new law. In a public statement, the Georgia Immigrant Rights Alliance said, “Georgia saw unprecedented voter turnout during the 2020 election cycle, because Georgians were given options to safely and securely cast their ballots while in a global pandemic. Rather than continue to expand Georgians’ access to the ballot, SB 202 will restrict Georgian immigrant communities’ right to make their voices heard.”“While we typically understand voting legislation to have direct effects on voting behavior, it is clear the spillover effects of voting legislation extend far beyond the voting booth.”
This immigrant rights group was among hundreds of advocacy organizations mobilizing throughout Southern states, as voter ID legislation took center stage in state legislatures. While we typically understand voting legislation to have direct effects on voting behavior, it is clear the spillover effects of voting legislation extend far beyond the voting booth. Such was the observation that brought us to this research as we asked: When voter ID laws are introduced, what are the spillover effects for immigrant-serving organizations? How do they recalibrate and strategically resist chilling effects among the immigrant communities they serve?
In our study, we examined how immigrant-serving organizations reacted and strategized in the wake of voter ID laws, even beyond the purview of the voting booth. After all, immigrant-serving organizations have played a significant role in advocating for immigrants and fighting for their rights. These nonprofit organizations have been crucial mediators between immigrants and local contexts, helping to show them the ropes of cultural, political, and economic systems.
Given the growing political role of immigrants in the “New South,” we investigated these questions across four Southern states: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina. In this essay, we describe our results by zooming in on the representative case of Alabama, drawing from a qualitative dataset of organizational materials (e.g., press releases, reports, posters, web pages) from 2005 to 2020. We identify five significant strategic shifts that characterize how organizations recalibrate in the wake of stringent voting legislation: engaging in new forms of advocacy, prioritizing community education, professionalizing resistance, engaging in legal mobilization, and multiracial coalition-building. These findings show how voter ID laws do not merely constrain voting behavior but also catalyze complex forms of organization and resistance, consequentially shaping the future of democracy.
The rising tide of antidemocratic voting legislation
In 2013, the US Supreme Court struck down a critical part of the Voting Rights Act, ruling the preclearance requirement unconstitutional. Prior to 2013, the preclearance requirement meant that certain (mostly Southern) jurisdictions seeking to change their election practices and procedures needed review by a US district court prior to implementation, ensuring procedures had “neither discriminatory purpose or effect.”3Voting Rights Act, Pub. L. No. 89–110, 79 Stat. 437, Sec. 5 (1965). Since the Supreme Court decision, political discourse about the threat of voter fraud and the illegitimacy of elections has generated a moral panic, where this perceived threat has become exaggerated to justify tightening voting procedures.4Robert Courtney Smith, “‘Don’t Let the Illegals Vote!’: The Myths of Illegal Latino Voters and Voter Fraud in Contested Local Immigrant Integration,” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 3, no. 4 (2017): 148.
Building off this political fervor, Republican-led state legislatures have implemented more stringent voting laws and voter ID requirements claiming these measures will ensure free and fair elections. Yet studies have shown that voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants, who are less likely to have access to the proper forms of identification or whose names get scrubbed from voter rolls because of improper ID.5Matt A. Barreto, Stephen A. Nuño, and Gabriel R. Sanchez, “The Disproportionate Impact of Voter-ID on the Electorate—New Evidence from Indiana,” PS: Political Science and Politics 42, no. 1 (2009): 111–16. For immigrant communities, the heightened political hostility toward the “illegal voter” can generate a chilling effect, in particular a fear of showing up at the polls.6Jennifer Darrah-Okike, Nathalie Rita, and John R. Logan, “The Suppressive Impacts of Voter Identification Requirements,” Sociological Perspectives 64, no. 4 (2021): 536–62. How, then, do immigrant-serving organizations work to buffer the harmful effects of voter ID laws, to advocate against these antidemocratic forces?
How voter ID laws shape immigrant advocacy: The case of Alabama“To challenge fear and generate immigrant political engagement, the coalition prioritized political education: using multilingual outreach to explain the new voting procedures and voter ID requirements.”
Examining the case of Alabama sheds deeper insight into how voter ID laws generate shocks to a state’s political culture, shifting the work that advocacy organizations do on the ground. When Alabama implemented its voter ID requirement in 2014, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ) had only been recently formed. Galvanizing in 2011 to combat Alabama’s HB 56, an “anti-illegal immigration bill” modeled after Arizona’s SB 270, the ACIJ had already developed a strong grassroots base of coalitions with long-established Black and civil rights organizations to challenge the state legislature. Yet the 2014 voter ID law meant the group would have to enter another arena: electoral politics. That year, the ACIJ held the first Latinx voter registration drive in state history. The campaign, “Alabama Vota,” worked with a network of 16 groups across Alabama building on prior coalitions with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other immigrant-serving organizations, strengthening the vote among Latino, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Black American voters. The organization took a multiprong “shoe-leather advocacy” approach to challenge the voter ID law and its effect, hitting the streets by foot to connect with potential voters face to face, voice to voice, from phone banking and canvassing to community festivals and church events. To challenge fear and generate immigrant political engagement, the coalition prioritized political education: using multilingual outreach to explain the new voting procedures and voter ID requirements. Of the effort, ACIJ staff member Yazmin Contreras explained, “It’s not about political party, we just want everyone to participate in our democracy and recognize the importance of voting.”7Leada Gore, “Alabama Vota Looks to Huntsville and Birmingham to up Voting Participation among State’s Latino Population,” Advance Local News, September 5, 2014.
We observed similar trends across other Alabama organizations, including ACIJ, and those from other states, where, indeed, more stringent voter ID policies were consequential for immigrant-serving organizations’ strategic repertoires. We found that prior to voter ID implementation, organizations mostly centered on strategies directed specifically at immigrants’ day-to-day lives: helping with housing and employment issues, seminars on naturalization, and educating immigrants about local cultures and political processes. After voter ID implementation, these organizations’ strategies shifted toward intensified voter registration efforts, voter education and facilitation around proper identification, know-your-rights workshops, protecting immigrants at the polls, and taking on the voter ID laws themselves.
Ultimately, heightened anti-immigrant sentiment and constraining voter ID laws redirected immigrant-serving organizations’ strategies through a splintering effect. As a result, the diffusion of organizational attention toward competing ends also meant organizations contended with resource scarcity, the sheer lack of human resources, and funding to meet all their goals and challenges. We noticed an uptick in fundraising efforts to contend with new political challenges, from electoral politics to the persistent threat of immigration enforcement. How did these shifts manifest in organizational strategies?
Five ways voter ID laws shape organizational strategies
Characterizing the larger effects of voter ID laws on organizational strategies, we identified five significant shifts. First, we found that voter ID laws pushed organizations to practice new forms of advocacy. For example, organizations advocated for jurisdictions to provide language interpreters and language assistance at the polls, meeting with city commissioners to increase language access at the polls and advocating for wider translation of materials at poll sites. Second, we found organizations prioritizing community education to teach immigrants their rights at the polls, including community events in coordination with the ACLU like “know your rights” sessions and fact sheets on voting laws and voters’ rights with respect to interpreters, provisional ballots, and remedies if they run into resistance. This also included educating voters through ethnic media press conferences and multilingual information sheets about their rights.“…organizations enacted training sessions for exit poll workers to help immigrants with election-day issues, protecting immigrant rights like the right to bring friends or family into the voting booth for translation assistance, and to help voters with provisional ballots…”
Third, we found organizations enacting strategies to professionalize resistance to disenfranchisement. For example, organizations enacted training sessions for exit poll workers to help immigrants with election-day issues, protecting immigrant rights like the right to bring friends or family into the voting booth for translation assistance, and to help voters with provisional ballots, e.g., what to do if their names are missing from voter lists or their records have incorrect information. These strategies included training lawyers, community leaders, law students, and volunteers to participate in the nationwide exit poll and poll monitoring project. Fourth, we found organizations increasingly participating in legal mobilization, joining a range of litigation cases at the federal, state, and municipal levels.
Fifth, and perhaps most consequentially, we found organizations increasingly joining multiracial coalitions in the wake of voter ID laws. Organizations cited the rise of anti-immigrant legislation as its own opportunity to reach across group boundaries and to build political power with other affected groups, specifically other Black and Brown communities. This pattern was also reflective of a larger pattern of coalitional organizing in the new South against the rising right-wing backlash to President Obama’s presidency. These spillover effects show not only that immigrant-serving organizations shift their strategies in relation to voting legislation, but also that their strategies become splintered: Attention and resources become redirected toward multiple targets. While this seems to hint at detrimental effects, we also see the rise of some potentially positive repercussions like coalitions that are changing the face of political power.
Advocacy organizations as vital organs in the future of democracy
By the 2016 election, Alabama had tripled the number of registered Latino voters from nearly a decade prior. While the state’s Latino population was only 1 percent of the electorate, coalitions reached beyond Latino constituencies to include Black, Southeast Asian, and East Asian voters.8Allie Yee, The Future of Young Latino Voters in the South (Durham, NC: The Institute of Southern Studies, 2016). With this wide-reaching and inclusive strategy, these advocacy organizations reached nearly 30 percent of Alabama’s electorate, ensuring antidemocratic forces would not prevent their full participation in democracy.9Allie Yee, “Amid Hostility, Immigrant Organizers Engage Alabama’s Growing Latino Electorate,” Facing South, April 29, 2016. Immigrant rights organizations across the South were building deep networks that would only bolster their resistance during the onslaught of anti-immigrant executive orders during the Trump presidency.“Questions abound not only about whose voice ought to count and how much it should count but also about who we want to be as a people.”
When a core tenet of democracy—the citizen’s right to vote—is up for debate, we find ourselves awash in the anxieties of democracy. Questions abound not only about whose voice ought to count and how much it should count but also about who we want to be as a people. Yet we find that immigrant-serving organizations offer a viable challenge to the well-funded, vociferous antidemocratic forces. These organizations understand the disenfranchised—Black and Brown Americans, immigrants, the poor—and their political incorporation as a vital organ of US democracy. As the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance wrote, “A combined focus on naturalization and voter registration in Mississippi can yield a whole new set of voters and political power for residents of color.” The preservation of democracy relies on these grassroots networks, deep coalitions that bridge group differences and bring communities together in a common objective. This is the promise and hopeful future of multicultural democracy.