What Is Voter Suppression?
Voter suppression is a political strategy — usually at the party-level but sometimes conducted by zealous individuals — designed to prevent a group of would-be voters from registering to vote or voting.
History of Voter Suppression Laws Based on Race
Voter suppression began at the founding of this nation when the right to vote in most states was limited to white male property owners. Non-Whites, women, and the non-property-owning poor were excluded.
After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment gave voting rights to every man in America, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude." However, from 1890 forward, former Confederate states amended their state constitutions to disenfranchise Black voters.
Some of the more well-known voter suppression strategies used during the Jim Crow era were poll taxes (a fee to register to vote), residency requirements, and literacy and comprehension tests.
These strategies were highly effective. For example, in Louisiana in 1900, Black people comprised the majority of the population and yet only 5,320 were on the voter registration rolls. By 1920, that number was down to 730. In North Carolina in 1904, there were no Black voters on the voter rolls.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
After significant efforts from voting rights activists, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Act is considered to be one of the most impactful pieces of law passed during the civil rights movement.
The Voting Rights Act regulated elections and, more specifically:
- Banned the use of literacy tests as a requirement for voter registration
- Gave the federal government control of voter registration in areas where less than half of minorities were not registered to vote
- Permitted the U.S. attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections (poll taxes were then banned in 1966 by the U.S. Supreme Court)
The new law was largely ignored in some areas of the South, but it did give Black voters a means to challenge voter suppression tactics in court, and voter turnout for Black voters increased from 6% in 1964 to 59% in 1969.
Section 5: Disenfranchisement
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act contains provisions that apply only to jurisdictions that were engaging in egregious voting discrimination to disenfranchise minority voters in 1965. It prevented those states from implementing any laws, statutes, or practices that affected voting without prior approval from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The states or jurisdictions that were ordered to comply were identified by a “coverage formula," which was extended in 1970 and again in 1975. It included nine states and parts of six other states.
In 2013, in the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, the coverage formula was ruled unconstitutional. Because it was almost 40 years old, it was determined to no longer reflect current conditions. Because Congress had failed to update the coverage formula, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unenforceable.
A 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that since the Supreme Court ruling in 2013, the federal government has taken less action to protect voting rights for minorities. Since 2013, there have been 61 lawsuits alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act, including four brought by the Justice Department.
Does Voter Suppression Still Exist Today?
Today's voting rights advocates say voter suppression is still a problem in the U.S., and people of color are still disproportionately affected, but they are not the only targets.
In the 2008 election, voter turnout among people of color increased by approximately 5 million votes compared to the 2004 election.
However, since the 2010 election, 25 states have passed more restrictive voting laws, making it harder for people to vote. These include:
- Stricter photo ID requirements
- Limited early voting
- Restrictions on voter registration
- Restrictions on restoring voting rights for past felons
These more restrictive voting laws overwhelmingly impacted people of color, senior citizens, the poor, disabled and sick, and college students.
Frequently Used Voter Suppression Tactics
There are three primary forms of state-sponsored voter suppression: The first makes it harder for people to register to vote. The second makes it harder for people to get to the polls. The third manipulates precinct boundaries to dilute or concentrate the vote for one party. There are also illegal voter suppression activities, like the destruction of voter registration cards.
Voter registration suppression examples include:
- Stricter voter ID requirements: accepting only certain kinds of IDs, requiring certain kinds of documentation to get IDs, requiring certain kinds of photos
- Residency requirements and address requirements
- “Intention to stay" requirements
- Restrictions on voter registration drives
- Elimination of Election Day voter registration
Voting barrier examples include:
- Closing polling stations
- Barriers related to disability
- Disallowing former felons from voting
- Voter intimidation tactics like armed observers at polling places
Gerrymandering is the practice of redefining political districts to ensure that one party maintains a political advantage. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that that partisan gerrymandering was too political in nature, and has to be addressed by elected branches of government, not the federal courts.
Challenging Voter Suppression
When Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was still being enforced, the Justice Department played the largest role in identifying and fighting voter discrimination and voter suppression. Action now falls on civic organizations like the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, nonprofit groups like the ACLU, and individuals.
If you believe you have been the victim of voter discrimination or if you have knowledge of voter suppression practices that you believe are illegal, talk to a civil rights lawyer who is knowledgeable about election law.