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How local advocacy groups are working to ensure eligible voters can get to the polls

Some say voter suppression has been on the rise since 2008

As our 20/20 Focus: The Push for Equality continues, we're taking a look at the history of voter suppression.

ROANOKE, Va. – As Election Day approaches, there is one last push to make sure every eligible voter can get to the polls. Advocacy groups say that is more difficult for some with a rise in voter suppression efforts since 2008.

“Your voting right is one of the most important things that you have,” said Dr. Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke branch of the NAACP.

Hale said the NAACP works to register eligible voters, educate them and get them to the polls. She said the organization is also on the lookout for instances of voter suppression.

“As far as voter suppression, as far as people trying to intimidate you, we will not tolerate that and we will call on whoever we need to call on if we detect something like that is going on,” Hale said.

Voter suppression is defined as strategies, legal or illegal, to prevent eligible voters from voting or registering to vote. Historians say these efforts have disenfranchised Virginians from the state’s earliest days.

“You only had to be four things to vote: you had to be adult, white, male and the owner of a substantial farm,” said Peter Wallenstein, Virginia Tech professor of history. “That’s suppression across most people who lived in this state.”

The adoption of the 15th amendment in 1870, giving Black men the right to vote, spurred a new wave of discriminatory practices aimed at keeping Black men away from the ballot box, especially in the South.

“We saw tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests, violence and voter intimidation as well,” said Brandy Faulkner with Virginia Tech’s department of political science.

Faulkner said while the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other laws have worked to eliminate those tactics, new ones emerged.

“Things like required voter identification, which certainly targets communities of color and specifically Black people. We also see voter purging, which are attempts to remove voter names from lists so they cannot vote as well. We still have gerrymandering, in fact, in many states,” Faulkner said.

Some have pushed for certain measures to address voter fraud, despite studies that consistently show there is no widespread voter fraud in U.S. elections.

“Most of the efforts are in fact, seem to be to dissuade certain groups of voters from participating in the political process,” said Christopher Seaman with Washington and Lee University’s School of Law.

Studies also show voter suppression efforts disproportionately affect minority voters, particularly Black Americans, but they also make it harder for the elderly, those with disabilities and students to vote.

“I think it’s important that we get people, young people voting,” said Beth Obenshain, president of the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County.

That’s why organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, are sharing messages to get out the vote with college students.

The League has teamed up with VT Engage, Virginia Tech’s center for service learning, leadership education and civic engagement, to get students registered and educated about their vote.

“You are a large voting block and your votes can decide this,” Obenshain said about the college vote.

The statewide League of Women Voters was also a part of a lawsuit filed in mid-October to extend Virginia’s voter registration deadline after a severed cable shut down Virginia’s online voter registration system, creating concerns voters would be disenfranchised.

“Sometimes our role is to go to court and say this must be corrected, and so we just urge everyone to go out and vote,” Obenshain said.

As the fight to protect your right to vote plays out in courts across the country, it is also happening with elected leaders.

“Probably one of the most important things that we can do is to make sure that there is appropriate legislation that addresses these types of tactics,” Faulkner said.

It is work the NAACP has been doing for more than a hundred years because they say so much is at stake with every election.

“We can’t give up, because we stand on the shoulders of all our ancestors that fought for us, they bled, and they did the ultimate sacrifice. They lost their life, so we could have that right,” Hale said.

In addition to registering people to vote, the Roanoke Chapter of the NAACP is working to make sure people have transportation to get to the polls for early voting or on Election Day.

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You can watch Brittny during the week anchoring the 5:30, 7 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10 and reporting on news that matters to you.