An extremely important part of advocacy is being able to vote for candidates who we believe will best represent our interests. But too often there are obstacles in making sure our vote – and everyone’s vote – is counted.
The term “voter suppression” is heard frequently in discussions about elections in America. Many Americans are familiar with voter suppression tactics used before and during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. And many people may have assumed that such tactics are a thing of the past — or perhaps remedied by the elimination of Jim Crow laws. But that’s far from true.
Is voter suppression still a problem in the United States of America?
Yes, voter suppression is a common strategy used today to gain unfair advantages in American elections by denying specific demographic groups of their right to vote. This article will explore information you should know about voter suppression, along with specific examples.
What is Voter Suppression?
Voter suppression is any effort that prevents eligible voters from registering to vote, casting their vote, or having their vote counted. The word “eligible” is essential to the concept of voter suppression. Too often, people confuse legitimate efforts to stop illegal or ineligible voters with the unfair efforts to stop eligible voters.
Most Americans would agree that preventing ineligible voters and illegal voting are essential to a fair election system. But making it harder or impossible for eligible voters to cast a vote is a completely different issue. In America’s theoretical concept of democracy, all eligible voters should be unapologetically encouraged to vote. And yet, the reality in America is its history and ongoing patterns of intimidating, deterring, and preventing votes that could be cast by eligible voters.
What is an eligible voter?
“In a democracy, all adult citizens must be eligible to participate in elections,” according to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network.
“This means that eligibility requirements must be broad enough so that all or virtually all adult residents having citizenship can register to vote. There should be no systematic exclusion of any group whether women, physically challenged persons, members of ethnic or linguistic minorities, poor or homeless people, or residents of remote areas.” (Source: ACE Electoral Knowledge Network)
- The definition of adult for American elections means being at least 18 years old on or before Election Day.
- The definition of citizen for American elections means being born in the U.S. Or, deriving citizenship automatically from a U.S. parent at the time of your birth, or through naturalization. (Naturalization is the application process for immigrants to become U.S. citizens.)
In addition to adulthood and citizenship, becoming an eligible voter also involves local residency requirements. For example living in a specific city, county, or state. And lastly, becoming eligible to vote requires that you register or complete an application showing that you meet the requirements mentioned above for adulthood, citizenship and residency. (Source: USA.gov)
This seems simple and straight-forward enough, right? And yet there’s always much controversy over who can and can’t vote in America. And whose votes will ultimately be counted.
Is voter suppression legal?
Voter suppression is illegal. But deciding what is and what isn’t voter suppression is often a question left for courts to decide or for Congress to regulate.
Many states have laws or procedures that seem unjust and unfair because they deny a group of people the right to vote. Or make it harder for them to vote. But whether they are illegal voter suppression tactics is not always obvious. You may be asking yourself, “But how can something that is unjust and seemingly discriminatory be legal?”
A popular saying that answers this question is “justice is not the same as the law.”
Injustices often occur that are technically legal. For example, sometimes there is no law in place to prevent injustices. Sometimes, the laws in place are unjust and need to be challenged and changed. And often the question of whether a specific law or procedure creates voter suppression is disputed. And that’s why advocacy and activism are important. As citizens, we can bring attention and awareness to injustices. And we can advocate for changes in the law that will enforce fairness and make injustices illegal.
And although voter suppression is illegal today, in the past voter suppression was legal. We can look at how different voter suppression tactics have evolved throughout history and the legal system. This will help us see how difficult it can be to get laws aligned with justice. Let’s explore the voter suppression tactic of literacy tests as an example.
Literacy Test Requirements
A common method used to suppress votes on a large-scale is by creating laws that impact a specific voter demographic. For example, for decades Southern states required literacy tests as part of their voter registration process. Thus, if you didn’t know how to read, you weren’t allowed to vote. This requirement disenfranchised black voters who, as former slaves, were not allowed to read or get an education.
What does disenfranchised mean?
Disenfranchise means to deprive someone of their ‘franchise’ or generally, their rights, privilege or power. The term is used in political context to mean the right to vote, or the rights of citizenship. Making someone ineligible, oppressing them or dominating them are common disenfranchisement methods. (Sources: Oxford Language Dictionary powered by Google, Dictionary.com, and WordHippo)
The literacy test requirement is an example of how voter suppression is often masked. It excludes black people without having to blatantly say, “black people can’t vote.”
On its face, laws such as the literacy test requirement may even seem reasonable. Some might think, “How can you read a ballot and cast your vote if you can’t read the candidates’ names?” Or, “What’s discriminatory about requiring that someone be able to read in order to vote?” But when you consider all the relevant facts, you can see the bigger systematic picture.
For starters, if you know most black people can’t read because they historically weren’t allowed to read, it becomes obvious that granting voting rights only to those who can read is an effective way of not allowing black people to vote. (Side note: This is an example of why knowing history is key to being able to see and dismantle voter suppression tactics and unfair laws.)
Another relevant fact to consider is how the literacy test requirement was implemented. The voting officials were white people and they only made black voters take the literacy test. White voters who couldn’t read did not have to take the literacy test. Thus, the literacy test requirement was applied in a way that discriminated against black voters.
And let’s be mindful that not being able to read should not be used as a front for concern about voter-related literacy in the first place. Eligible voters who can’t read deserve to have representation just like those who can read. A fairer approach is to give accommodations that enable them to vote. For example, instead of taking away their voting rights, allow another person to assist, or provide an audio version of the ballot. This further shows that literacy test laws for voter registration weren’t really about literacy at all. They were about voter suppression. Yet, because they were “laws” enacted by state legislatures, they were technically “legal” at that time.
In fact, the Supreme Court confirmed the legality of literacy test laws in 1959 when it ruled the tests did not violate the U.S. Constitution. (Source: Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (Wikipedia))
So how did literacy tests become illegal?
In the 1960s Congress enacted laws that began to diminish the use of literacy tests. Specifically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 put restrictions on how literacy tests could be used. And in 1970, the Voting Rights Act was amended to ban literacy tests across the country. That same year the Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of Congress’s ban on literacy tests, but said it could only apply to federal elections. (Source: Literacy Tests (Wikipedia))
Here’s a summary of how the voter suppression tactic of literacy tests were both legal and illegal throughout history.
- It’s legal (1890): States passed laws requiring literacy tests for voter registrations. They were discriminatorily given to black people, but not to white people.
- It’s still legal (1959): The Supreme Court said literacy test laws are constitutional.
- It’s illegal (1964-1970): Congress passed laws, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to stop States from using literacy tests.
- It’s still illegal but with exceptions (1970): The Supreme Court said Congress’s law to stop the literacy tests are constitutional but only for federal elections.
The evolution of literacy test laws shows how complicated it can be to illegalize voter suppression tactics. It shows how a law with the goal of voter suppression can outwardly seem harmless while strategically denying citizens their right to vote.
How is history relevant to Voter Suppression?
To fully understand voter suppression efforts, it’s important to understand American history, especially the Reconstruction Era. Voter Suppression has been used since the Reconstruction Era when black people first began exercising their right to vote.
What is the Reconstruction Era?
The years during and after the Civil War are known as the Reconstruction Era (1863 – 1877). The Civil War, which ended in 1865, was a war between the States. The northern states wanted to end slavery, and they fought the southern states that wanted to continue slavery. The northern states won the Civil War. The Reconstruction Era consisted of efforts made by Congress to:
- reunite the states,
- establish the relationship between the states and the federal government, and
- grant US Citizenship and voting rights to black people.
To accomplish these goals, Congress rewrote the laws that govern the nation. They changed the Constitution to include three new important amendments:
- The 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
- The 14th Amendment granted citizenship and equal protection of the laws to all citizens.
- The 15th Amendment prohibited states from denying voter rights based on race.
In summary, the 13th Amendment set slaves free. The 14th Amendment made black people citizens. And the 15th Amendment gave black men voting rights. (Note: Women were not allowed to vote until the 19th Amendment.)
Was the Reconstruction Era Successful?
Were the laws, Constitutional Amendments, and efforts to create equality for black people during Reconstruction Era successful? The answer is not clearly yes or no. The best answer is probably both yes and no.
Goals of the Reconstruction efforts included reuniting the states, rebuilding the country and giving equal status to black people. These efforts were successful for a short period of time. The first state-funded public school in the South was created. And economic programs were available to help the railroad and other businesses. Black people began successfully building their communities and were able to vote. They also served in Congress and held hundreds of local government positions.
The achievements of black people angered white people who wanted to preserve white supremacy. Domestic terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan were created to intimidate black people using violence. They were also violent towards white people who supported the new equal protection and equal rights laws. This backlash was successful and as a result, the 14 and 15th amendments were not enforced. Thus, the Reconstruction goals of equality for black people were not fulfilled.
The Reconstruction Era is relevant to understanding voter suppression efforts. It shows how black people were denied the right to vote, even though Constitutional amendments had granted them that right. The gap between having laws on the books and enforcing those laws is one example of how unjust tactics like voter suppression can continue for years and years.
Examples of Voter Suppression after the Reconstruction Era
Voter suppression after the Reconstruction Era negatively impacted the progress of black people and further contributed to their overall oppression. Here’s a few examples:
State Laws Rewritten:
States, particularly in the south, rewrote their constitutions to suppress the votes of newly enfranchised black people. For example, they added grandfather clauses, which prohibited anyone from voting if their grandfather had not been able to vote. Of course, black people were formerly slaves and did not have grandfathers who could vote. Thus, grandfather clauses effectively prevented black people from voting.
States also adopted clauses that required a fee on registering to vote or payment of a voting tax. For example, Alabama adopted a cumulative poll tax that made all men pay the taxes due from age 21 before they could vote. A 1926 Georgia Code required men to pay all the taxes due since 1877 before they could vote.
Arbitrary Registration Criteria:
Many jurisdictions made it harder for black people to vote by adding random criteria to the voter registration process. White voters were not subjected to these frivolous requirements such as the literacy tests discussed above, requiring voters to count the number of jellybeans in a jar based on sight alone, having to recite the entire Constitution or name all the judges in a county. These tactics were clearly used to further disenfranchise black voters. (Source: History.com)
White election officials and poll workers used misinformation as a voter suppression tactic. They gave incorrect election dates to black voters, told them they were at the wrong polling place, or that they completed the application incorrectly. These tactics, often used with intimidation, prevented black voters from casting their votes. (Source: History.com)
Intimidation and Violence:
The Ku Klux Klan intimidated black voters with riots, lynchings, and destruction of entire black communities through arson and terror. Studies found lynchings that occurred the year before an election resulted in a 2% – 6% reduction in black voter turnout. (Source: National Bureau of Economic Research).
These voter suppression tactics were used for about 90 years. It was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally provided enforcement of the Constitution’s 15th Amendment which outlawed race-based voter rights discrimination.
What is the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was created to enforce the 15th Amendment and end voter suppression tactics that prevented black people from voting for over 90 years. It was signed into law the day after state troopers brutally attacked peaceful, unarmed voting rights marchers in Selma, Alabama with batons and tear gas. This attack, now known as Bloody Sunday, convinced the US President and Congress to create more effective nationwide voting rights legislation. (Source: OurDocuments.gov)
So, what exactly did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 do? Here’s a summary:
- It outlawed discriminatory registration requirements like literacy tests and grandfather clauses nationwide.
- It allowed federal examiners to register black voters. And it provided federal poll watchers to monitor local elections and ensure compliance with the law.
- It created a formula for identifying states and counties that have a history of disenfranchising voters based on race. And it required those states to get approval from the federal government before making changes to voting practices and procedures. This preclearance was a proactive step. It helped make sure their new voting laws weren’t discriminatory before they were enacted.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had immediate impact and improved black voter registration and turnout significantly. Within the first five months after the Act was passed, a quarter million new black voters had been registered. (Source: OurDocuments.gov)
Did the Voting Rights Act give black people the right to vote?
No, the Voting Rights Act did not give black people the right to vote. Instead, it enforced black people’s right to vote by providing federal oversight of how the States handle elections. And in essence, it enforced all citizens’ right to vote. It also prohibited discriminatory practices in voter registration on a national level.
So, when did black people get the right to vote?
The right to vote was granted to black men by the US Constitution’s 15th Amendment in 1870. The 15th Amendment says the right to vote cannot be denied based on race. Voting rights were granted to black women 50 years later by the 19th Amendment in 1920. The 19th Amendment granted all American women the right to vote. (Source: OurDocuments.gov)
As discussed earlier, although black people got voting rights in 1870, their ability to actually vote was denied because of racism. Racism and white supremacy was allowed to flourish in the United States. It carried over to life-threatening forms of voter suppression, including physical violence, harassment and intimidation. And also discriminatory laws such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Almost a century later, it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave enforcement to the 15th Amendment and allowed black people to more freely exercise their right to vote.
Does the Voting Rights Act Expire?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has several sections and some of those sections have expiration dates. In 2006 it was reauthorized (a year before its 2007 expiration) and extended for 25 years. This means the sections that have expiration dates are now set to expire in 2032. (Source: GovTrack)
One of the sections that has an expiration is Section 4, known as the coverage formula. The coverage formula describes the criteria used to determine whether a jurisdiction has a history of discriminatory voting practices and if they should be “covered” by the enforcement parts of the Act. “Jurisdictions” included states, counties and local governments.
Another section that has an expiration is Section 5, known as the preclearance requirements. It requires covered jurisdictions identified in Section 4 to get approval or “preclearance” from federal government before they make changes to any voting laws or procedures.
Both the coverage formula and preclearance requirements were initially effective for only five years. This means they were set to expire in 1970. But in following years, Congress continued to reauthorize and extend the expiration date because of ongoing voter discrimination issues. Currently, the coverage formula and preclearance sections expire in 2032, even though some other parts of the Act are permanent. (However, as discussed below, even though Sections 4 and 5 of the Voter Rights Act have not yet expired, their effectiveness was diminished by a Supreme Court ruling in 2013.)
Which Sections of the Voters Right Act don’t expire?
The sections of the Voter Rights Act can be grouped into two types of provisions: general provisions and special provisions. General provisions apply nationwide and are permanent with no expiration date. Special provisions apply to covered jurisdictions and have expiration dates. (Source: Wikipedia and ACLU)
For example, Section 2 applies nationwide and prohibits voting laws that discriminate based on race or language. This is a general provision, and it is permanent.
In contrast, the coverage formula and preclearance requirements in Sections 4 and 5 apply only to covered jurisdictions with histories of voter suppression. These are special provisions that have an expiration.
Also, the Voter Rights Act has evolved since it was first enacted in 1965. Some temporary sections, such as the banning of literacy tests, eventually became permanent when the Act was reauthorized and amended. (Source: Scholarly Commons Law)
Why does the Voting Rights Act have to be renewed?
The Voting Rights Act must be renewed or “re-authorized” because some of its provisions are temporary measures that last for limited time periods. Also, some sections may need federal money to effectively and meaningfully enforce the measures.
What does reauthorization mean?
Reauthorize means to authorize again. Another word for reauthorize is renew. The reauthorization process is when Congress renews the authority of a law. They determine what changes may be needed to an existing law. Examples of changes include adding new terms, removing terms, and extending timelines or coverage. If a law is reauthorized with changes or updates, it is called an Amendment. (Source: Merriam-Webster)
The Voter Rights Act has been reauthorized five times. And its special provisions have been extended four times covering a total extension period of 62 years.
- 1970: Extended for 5 years
- 1975: Extended for 7 years
- 1982: Extended for 25 years
- 2006: Extended for 25 years until 2032 (Source: GovTrack)
These authorizations and extensions reflect the country’s evolving needs to deal with voter suppression. It also reflects that America still has work to do so all citizens have unobstructed access to their voting rights.
Why isn’t the entire Voting Rights Act permanent?
The special provisions of the Voting Rights Act, such as the coverage formula and preclearance sections, were temporary measures put in place to help jurisdictions comply with the law if they had a history of discriminating against black voters. These provisions were initially set to expire after only five years, which suggests that they were never intended to be permanent. (Source: Scholarly Commons Law).
- Why do some provisions have to be continuously renewed and extended?
- Why can’t all sections be permanent like the general provisions of the Voter’s Right Act?
- Is it easier and fairer to make all provisions permanent instead of having to renew it every 25 years?
Whenever the Voter Rights Act approaches renewal, fear starts circulating that black people will lose their right to vote. In a practical sense, this is true because the Voter Rights Act helps reduce voter suppression and voter suppression denies people of their voting rights. But technically, the Voter Rights Act is not the law that granted voting rights to black people. So, non-renewal of its special provisions does not mean black people will be stripped of the voting rights guaranteed to them as citizens.
An Optimistic Congress?
The fears described above reveal a logical question about why the Voter Rights Act isn’t permanent. Perhaps Congress had hoped the temporary provisions would remedy voter suppression without the need for federal oversight after 5 years. If so, some would argue it was overly optimistic for Congress to think that jurisdictions, primarily in the Southern states which were allowed to run amuck with white supremist terrorism threatening the lives of black voters for nearly 100 years, could (or would) change their ways in just 5 years.
A Negotiating Congress?
Some scholars found that the temporary provisions of the Voter Rights Act were part of negotiations discussed by members of Congress during the reauthorization processes – that some Congress members favored permanent provisions but compromised to gain revision or expansion of other provisions. Also, some Congress members believed that making the covered formula and preclearance sections permanent may violate the Constitution if jurisdictions did not have a way to ever be free from the federal oversight. (Source: Scholarly Commons Law).
There are likely several political or legal reasons why all the Voter Rights Act sections are not permanent. What’s clear is that it’s been 55 years since the Act was signed into law and voter suppression is still an issue in American elections. Thus, enforcement of the Voter Rights Act is still needed to combat voter suppression.
How many times has the Voting Rights Act been amended?
As of 2020, the Voting Rights Act has been amended five times. Each Amendment helped strengthen the protection of the Act. (Source: Wikipedia)
Here’s a few highlights from each amendment:
- 1970: Expanded the ban on discriminatory “tests or devices” to apply nationwide and lowered the voting age to 18 years old for federal elections.
- 1975: Expanded the Act to protect “language minorities” from discrimination. This provided protections to citizens whose dominant language was not English, such as Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Americans. New bilingual election requirements were created to make ballots and voting information available in different languages.
- 1982: Amended to include a “results test” standard for determining if a voting law is discriminatory. The results test standard allows lawsuits to be brought under the Act for laws that have a discriminatory effect, even if the law was not enacted for a discriminatory purpose.
- 1992: Expanded the coverage formula to include more jurisdictions and protect more language minorities. Created an alternative coverage formula to protect voters living on Indian Reservations.
- 2006: Clarified the ban against voting procedures that have a purpose or effect of reducing citizens’ ability to vote because of their race or color. Extended the special provisions deadline for 25 more years.
Did the Voting Rights Act get repealed?
No, the Voting Rights Act did not get repealed by Congress. But it was significantly weakened in 2013 by the Supreme Court ruling in the Shelby County, Alabama vs Holder case. The Shelby County case invalidated the coverage formula. And it nullified the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act, which is the Act’s main enforcement provision. So, although the Act is still active law as of 2020, it’s not as powerful as it used to be.
The coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act defines which jurisdictions must comply with the preclearance requirements in Section 5. The preclearance requirements prevent covered jurisdictions from changing their voting laws until they first get pre-approval from the US Attorney General or the US District Court for D.C.
Jurisdictions that had a voting test in place as of November 1, 1964, and less than 50% turnout for the 1964 presidential election are covered by the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was extended through 2032. Thus, the Act required these jurisdictions to get preclearance (as described in Section 5) before they can change their voting laws.
The jurisdiction of Shelby County in Alabama filed a lawsuit to challenge the Voter Rights Act. They argued that the coverage formula and the preclearance requirements were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court agreed with Shelby County. The Court found Section 4’s coverage formula unconstitutional because it was outdated and did not reflect changes that had occurred over the years to reduce the gap in voter turnout in the covered jurisdictions. The Court said Section 4 was a violation of the 10th Amendment, which prevents the federal government from unjustifiably exceeding its powers over state laws. And that it created a burden on certain jurisdictions. As a result of the coverage formula in Section 4 being invalidated, enforcing the preclearance requirements in Section 5 became impossible.
The Supreme Court’s decision was split 5 to 4. The five most conservative justices voted to invalidate the coverage formula. The four most liberal justices voted to uphold it. The conservative justices questioned whether the protections of the Voting Rights Act were still needed. The liberal justices explained that Congress had already collected evidence during the reauthorization process to prove continued need for the coverage formula. And that any perception that voter suppression is no longer an issue should be credited to how well the protections were working as designed.
In summary, the Shelby County case invalidated the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. And that nullified the preclearance requirements in Section 5.
How Effective is the Voter Rights Act Today?
The Voter Rights Act is not as effective today because of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in the Shelby County, Alabama vs Holder case. As discussed above, this case removed the federal oversight (aka preclearance) of voting laws in states that have a history of race-based voter suppression. The key to the effectiveness of the preclearance process was that it allowed the federal government to review changes to state voting laws before they were implemented. This diminished the harm that could’ve been done by discriminatory laws. Now that the Shelby County case ended the preclearance process, discriminatory voting laws can go into effect and disenfranchise voters for years while citizens and advocacy groups challenge them and fight to remove them.
Also, without the preclearance process of the Voter Rights Act, “racial impact analyses are no longer conducted to fully assess the impact of vote centers on Black, Latino, Native American and Asian American voters.” (Source: The Guardian) This makes it harder to prevent discriminatory voting laws in the first place. And also harder to prove they are discriminatory if states are not tracking data about the impact of their voting laws.
How did voting laws change after the Shelby County case?
Within 24 hours of the Shelby County Supreme Court ruling, the state of Alabama changed its voter laws and made it harder for citizens to vote, particularly people of color. The Alabama legislature first enacted new photo ID requirement laws, which had been previously blocked by the Voter Rights Act. Studies show that Hispanic and black people are more likely to not have a photo identification. A year later Alabama shut down government offices, disproportionately located in black communities, where residents could obtain photo IDs. (Source: New York Times) This tactic of creating a photo ID requirement and then making it harder for people to get photo IDs is reminiscent of the Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow where states created literacy laws for voter registration knowing that black people had been denied the right to read and get education.
And there have been numerous changes to voting procedures since the Shelby County ruling as states seize the opportunity to make new laws without federal oversight. Examples of these modern-day tactics that cause voter suppression by creating inconvenience, confusion, and intimidation include:
Reducing polling locations:
States, like Indiana, Arizona and Georgia, have shut down polling places in predominantly black and Hispanic communities, causing long lines and wait times. Georgia voters in black communities stood in line for more than 5 hours to cast their vote in the 2020 primary election. And studies show that long lines affect voter confidence and reduces voter turnout for that election as well as for future elections. More than 1000 polling places were shut down throughout the US after the Shelby County case.
Disproportionate drop-off ballot access:
In the 2020 election, the Texas Governor only allowed one drop-off location in every county, despite the huge differences in population size between counties. This made it more inconvenient for voters in bigger urban counties, which also have large black and Hispanic populations, to use ballot drop-off locations.
In 2018, the Associated Press reported that 53,000 voter registrations in Georgia were blocked — 80% from people of color, 70% from African Americans. They were blocked because their name on their voter registration form did not exactly match their name on other state databases, such as the Motor Vehicles and Social Security databases. “When submitting a voter registration form, if you have a hyphen missing on your name, if you have an apostrophe missing, if you use “Tom” on one form and “Thomas” on another, your form is going to be blocked by the state of Georgia.” (Source: NPR)
What is Disenfranchisement by Typo?:
Disenfranchisement by typo is when a voter’s registration is not accepted or their vote is not counted because of a typo, data entry error made by government employees, or any other arbitrary mistake on a form that has nothing to do with voter eligibility.
Use it or lose it procedures:
At least 9 states now remove voters from registration rolls if they have not voted in recent elections. In 2019, Ohio attempted to purge 235,000 names that were allegedly for people who were dead, had moved, or deemed duplicates. It was later revealed that about 40,000 people were on their purge list in error and should not have been purged. (Source: Washington Post) Although keeping voter rolls clean of deceased and non-resident individuals is ideal, the arbitrary way in which many states purge their rolls, often without sufficient correction methods or notice to voters, leads to discriminatory results and disenfranchisement of eligible voters.
The “Moved Voter” purge:
Several states have “cleaned” their registered voter lists by assuming, often wrongly, that voters have moved out of the state. Significant errors are frequently found in this process, including purging of voters who’ve lived in their home for decades and never moved at all, and voters who simply moved down the street on the same block. Literally millions of voters have had their registrations canceled because of this flawed process. In 2016, over 2,000,000 voters showed up to vote in the Presidential election and were told their name was removed from voter registration rolls; in comparison, that election was won by a mere 77,000 votes. (Source: Truthout)
Another purge process is the “interstate crosscheck,” used to purge voters who are believed to be registered in other states. In Michigan it was done so haphazardly that, for example, it purged Michael Wayne Brown from their voter list because someone named Michael Kelly Brown was registered in Georgia. This means your name could be purged from voter rolls simply because it resembles someone else’s name in another state!! A 2017 study found that Crosscheck is 99% more likely to purge legitimate voters rather than inadmissible voters.
Misinformation is a voter suppression tactic used to confuse people about the voting process and discourage voting. This tactic has thrived in today’s modern era with the help of the internet and social media. Misinformation leading up to the 2020 election was so prevalent that Google removed auto-complete search capability for terms such as “you can vote by phone.” And, Twitter began flagging tweets from politicians by labelling them as “misleading” or “misinformation.” Also, misinformation in the form of fake social media accounts, many pretending to be black voters or directed at black voters, were also a significant problem. Studies show Black American’s were extensively targeted with negative ads on Facebook with the goal of making them feel hopeless and encouraging them not to vote on Election Day.
Resources that Track Voter Suppression
The above examples are just a few of the voter suppression tactics used by states or by people with political motives. The two resources below provide more detailed information about the voter suppression tactics seen in recent years:
- Democracy Diminished by the Legal Defense Fund, a 2016 report describing state-by-state threats to voting rights three years after the Shelby County decision.
- Analysis: New and Age-Old Voter Suppression Tactics at the Heart of the 2020 Power Struggle by the Center for Public Integrity, which discusses tactics in 2020 that affected voters nationwide such as:
- slowing down mail delivery by the Post Office
- attempts to end census counting prematurely
- litigation to stop safe voting measures during a worldwide public health crisis
Can the Voter Rights Act be restored or repaired?
Yes, Congress can restore the Voter Rights Act’s effectiveness by passing new and updated protections to replace the sections that were struck down by the Shelby County court ruling. Attempts to do so are already underway.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) was introduced in Congress and was passed in the US House of Representatives on December 6, 2019 with a majority vote of 228 – 187. Months later, on July 27, 2020, it was renamed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2020 in honor of the renowned civil rights activist and congressman who died in July 2020. (Source: NAACP)
Congress has been extremely polarized in recent years, with the controlling parties, Democrats and Republicans, failing to agree on practically any issue that arises. With the backdrop of this polarization as of December 2020, this bill has been stalled in the Senate for months. This is a drastic change from prior years where the Voting Rights Act and its subsequent amendments and reauthorizations had overwhelming bipartisan support.
As citizens, we can help by making our voices heard and holding our Congress members accountable. See the What Can You Do section at the end of this article to find out what you can do about the VRAA bill and restore voting rights.
What are the motives for voter suppression?
America is changing. Its population is becoming more diverse. Voter suppression is about “delaying the impact of shifting demographics” in the United States. By the year 2044, white people are expected to be the new minority in the US. This change is one of the greatest fears and motivators that fuel voter suppression.
Diversity can be seen as a threat to people who currently have power, wealth, and leadership. It’s also seen as a threat to American customs and values. And those who want to maintain the status quo may find it easier to suppress voters who historically have different views than trying to win those voters over.
Also consider this — the fact that white people will one day become the minority in terms of population numbers, does not mean they will automatically become the minority in terms of wealth and power. In an opinion-editorial article, Dudley Poston Jr., and Rogelio Sáenz offer this explanation:
“Whites will continue to be the majority in terms of wealth, power and prestige. Whites have amassed large amounts of wealth and other resources that will not become depleted with their declining population counts. While increasing numbers will translate into some political gains among people of color, the white political machinery is already in motion deploying political tactics, such as gerrymandering and voter ID laws, to minimize the political power of groups of color. In South Africa, while whites are the numerical minority, they continue being the dominant group politically and economically.” (Source: The Baltimore Sun Op-Ed)
Why do state law makers and politicians try to suppress votes?
Voter suppression has historically been an effective tool for gaining political power and maintaining control. People who resist efforts to allow all American citizens to vote recognize the importance and impact of voting. They also fear a shift in power balance if impactful demographic groups are less likely to agree with the views and agendas of those already in power. Voter suppression is a way to prevent a shift in power. It silences the voices of specific demographic groups and reduces their political influence.
Today, there’s little threat of being beaten by election officials for exercising your right to vote. But even non-violent and obscure voter suppression tactics accomplish the same goal as the violent tactics of the past. Your right to vote is still denied, your voice still not heard.
Is voter suppression always about race?
No, these days voter suppression is not always about race. Voter suppression tactics date back to the Reconstruction era where white people prevented black people from exercising their rights as freed slaves and citizens. However today, voter suppression can affect demographic groups not related to race too. For example, voter suppression tactics used in recent years have impacted:
- poor voters (example, Georgia’s attempt to require car ownership for voter registration)
- young voters (example, Florida outlawed early voting sites at state universities),
- voters with disabilities (Study shows 60% of polling places in 2016 election had an impediment to people with disabilities)
- overseas voters (examples of how difficult it is for U.S. citizens abroad to vote)
Some people also object to claims of racial disparities that are frequently found in voter suppression tactics like exact-match and moved voter purges. But the fact that these practices can and do disenfranchise eligible voters of any demographic background should be enough to anger and concern all American citizens. For example, consider how Ohio’s planned voter purge in 2019 had over 40,000 errors. They were about to mistakenly remove more than 40,000 eligible voters from their registration rolls until voting rights advocates informed them of their error.
Even if you put aside the break-down of how many of those 40,000 wrongly marked for removal were poor, black, indigenous, disabled, young—whatever, it’s still 40,000 America citizens who would’ve had their right to vote taken away from them through no fault of their own. And this is not an isolated occurrence.
Examples of massive purge errors
In addition to the Ohio incident described above here’s a few more examples of massive purge errors:
- In 2016 it was discovered that New York illegal purged over 200,000 voters.
- A 2020 report found Georgia has a purge error rate of 63% that resulted in 198,000 voters wrongfully removed.
- A 2020 report found Wisconsin wrongfully removed almost 40,000 voters from its polls.
These purging errors are troublesome, even if you don’t care about race or don’t believe racial disparities are a factor in many voter suppression tactics. The reality that states wrongfully purge massive numbers of voters, often without adequate notice to the voter and with such faulty and inaccurate methods, is alarming and undeniably unjust and unfair to American citizens.
What’s the difference between voter fraud and voter suppression?
Voter suppression is not the same as voter fraud. Here’s 3 key differences:
1. Preventing deceit and deceptive votes vs. Preventing eligible votes
The definitions of voter fraud and voter suppression give the main clues as to how these issues differ. Voter fraud relates to deceitful actions such as:
- people voting more than once
- buying votes
- falsifying registration forms
- or voting by people who are ineligible to vote in a given election, such as non-citizens or non-residents of a local jurisdiction.
In contrast, voter suppression relates to eligible people being denied their right to vote or unjustly keeping citizens from being eligible to vote.
2. Frequency and Prevalence
Another difference between voter fraud and voter suppression is that voter fraud is rare in American elections. In comparison, voter suppression is common and impacts millions more Americans.
For example, stricter voter ID laws are often pushed as a way to prevent voter fraud. However, voter impersonation is the only kind of fraud that could be prevented by voter ID at the polls. And it is extremely rare. A federal judge struck down parts of Wisconsin’s strict voter ID laws. The judge concluded there is “utterly no evidence” that in-person voter impersonation fraud is an issue in either Wisconsin or the United States. He also said their voter ID law was “a cure worse than the disease” because it disenfranchised voters instead of preventing voting fraud.
And multiple studies support that federal judge’s conclusion. A 2012 study found only 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud in a 12-year span. And a 2014 study found only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation fraud out of one billion ballots cast. This study also found that 3,000 voters had been rejected in general elections across four states for lack of ID. Based on how rare voter impersonation fraud is, this likely means most of those 3,000 voters were legitimate eligible voters who became victims of voter suppression because of an overreaching voter ID law.
Lastly, there’s a greater chance that voter suppression will impact election outcomes. This is because voter suppression tactics use laws and procedures that prevent thousands, and collectively millions, of eligible voters from having their vote counted. In contrast, voter fraud cases are typically isolated incidences that are not as likely to alter election outcomes. We discussed voter impersonation above, but the same infrequency is true with other forms of voter fraud as well. After the 2020 election, the New York Times contacted election officials in every State. No States reported any irregularities with the processing and counting of votes that affected the election outcome.
“Voting fraud in the United States is extremely rare. The irregularities that do occur are often inconsequential, isolated in nature, and unlikely to alter the outcome of an election.” (Source: New York Times)
And multiple sources have fact checked and debunked several claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. Numerous allegations turned out to not be fraud, but instead were false claims based on ignorance about the ballot counting process, or incidents of human and clerical errors which are typically self-corrected through the layers of checks and balances built into the process.
One thing voter suppression and voter fraud have in common however, is they both impact and reduce confidence in America’s democracy and election system.
Do tougher voter laws prevent voter fraud?
Many people believe tougher voting laws helps prevent voter fraud. However, while it seems clear that strict voter laws can cause voter suppression, it’s not clear that such strict laws reduce voter fraud. There are at least two reasons for this.
1. Voter fraud is rare already.
- One of the most comprehensive and convincing studies done over a 14-year period found only 241 fraudulent ballots out of 1 billion ballots cast. Of those, 31 were voter impersonation fraud as discussed above.
- Another study found only 2,068 election fraud incidents reported over a 12-year span that had 146 million registered voters. (Note: Incidents “reported” is not the same as proven or prosecuted.)
- Kansas’ Secretary of State examined 84 million votes cast across 22 states. Of those, merely 14 cases were referred for prosecution, or 0.00000017 percent of the votes cast.
Thus, it’s hard to evaluate the effectiveness of laws that attempt to solve a problem that is almost non-existent.
2. Voter fraud can be committed by nonvoters.
Even if we assume voter fraud is an issue, tough voter laws would not reduce all fraud in the voting process. This is because fraud can be committed by people who are not voters. One study’s assessment of successfully prosecuted voter fraud cases found at least one-third involved nonvoters. Nonvoters includes election officials and volunteers. Thus, harsh laws that focus on what voters can and can’t do, don’t prevent fraud committed by elections workers or people who have a political stake in the election.
In summary, the argument that voter laws need to be more restrictive to prevent voter fraud is unsubstantiated. With no significant evidence, the claims of potential large-scale voter fraud seems suspect. To many people, it feels like fear-mongering used by politicians who want to control whose vote matters and whose vote doesn’t matter. This is why civil rights activists continue to challenge the premise and legality of harsher voting laws that suppress votes.
What can you do to help end voter suppression?
Be an informed voter
The best way to fight voter suppression is to be an informed voter. At minimum, this involves:
- getting registered to vote,
- checking your registration status periodically, and
- voting in every possible election, including state and local elections, not just Presidential elections.
Although an essential part of the Voter Rights Act is nullified and voter suppression is splurging, voting is as important as ever. As citizens our vote is our superpower to combat injustice and keep elections free and accessible.
Get help from reliable sources
If you experience any barriers to voting, contact the nationwide Election Protection Hotline via phone call or text: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). You can also reach them using chat. Election Protection is like a one-stop shop for anything voter related. They can answer all of your voting related questions no matter what state you live in.
And there are many other organizations that work to ensure every voter can vote and that every vote is counted. Consider contacting your state elections office and nonprofit advocacy groups to stay informed also. Be encouraged in knowing that for any voting issue you experience, there are many helpful organizations to assist you.
The more you know about how to vote, when to vote, and where to vote, the less impact voter suppression laws will have on you as an individual. And the more informed voters, the less impact voter suppression laws will have on our communities. Being an informed voter and knowing where to get answers about voting helps ensure that every vote really does count.