What Is Voter Suppression?
States have instituted several methods to prevent voter suppression from undermining elections.
Voter suppression happens when someone prevents a registered voter from voting.
In the late 1700s, American colonists had many issues with how the British monarchy ruled the colonies. One of their chief complaints was Britain's taxes and its refusal to give them representation in the British government. The founding fathers envisioned a nation that gave all citizens a say in governance.
After declaring independence from Britain in 1776, the founding fathers began the great American experiment of democracy. America's democracy differed in many ways from Britain's monarchy. One defining feature of America's government was the right to vote on policies and elect representatives.
The right to vote in free and fair elections is a foundational feature of democracy. Fair elections are perhaps the most direct way for people to exercise the power democracy gives them. It allows the people to elect representatives and support their favored policies. It also allows them to hold the government accountable.
This article discusses voter suppression and the history of voting rights in the United States. The article begins by explaining voter fraud, voter suppression, and gerrymandering. It then discusses the history of voting rights in America. It then describes recent changes to voting laws that aim to prevent voter suppression.
Voter Suppression vs. Voter Fraud
Given how important voting is in the United States, it should come as no surprise that groups and individuals have tried to undermine the electoral process. These groups and people typically engage in either voter fraud or voter suppression to achieve their goals.
Voter suppression happens when a group or person discourages or prevents an eligible voter from casting a ballot. As the Brennan Center points out, the "modern approach" to suppressing voters is characterized "as death by a thousand cuts." These methods often involve state laws that, when taken together, make it more difficult for eligible voters to cast their ballots.
Voter registration suppression examples include:
- Strict voter ID laws, such as accepting only certain kinds of IDs, requiring certain kinds of documentation to get IDs, and requiring certain types of photo IDs
- Restrictions on voter registration drives
- Voter purges (when eligible voters get removed from voter rolls improperly, often without notice to voters)
- Ballot drop box restrictions
There are also illegal voter suppression activities, like the destruction of voter registration cards.
Other people or groups have engaged in voter fraud to influence elections. Voter fraud happens when people ineligible to vote cast a ballot anyway. Voter fraud also happens when one person casts more than one vote in a single election.
Voter fraud and voter suppression distort poll results. Voter suppression may prevent eligible voters from casting their votes. In voter fraud, counting illegitimate or extra votes may sway an election so it doesn't represent the will of the people. These methods of election interference undermine free and fair elections in a democracy.
Each state elects representatives and senators who ensure the people have a say in government. Each state gets two U.S. senators. More populous states get more representatives than less populous states. For example, in 2023, these states sent the following number of delegates to the U.S. Congress:
- Alabama: 7
- Arizona: 9
- Florida: 28
- New York: 26
- Virginia: 11
A state generally gets one representative per state district. Every 10 years, state legislatures redraw their district lines. Districts must generally have the same population.
Gerrymandering is the practice of redefining political districts to ensure that one party maintains a political advantage. The term comes from Elbridge Gerry's attempt to redraw Massachusetts's district lines in 1812. He aimed to pack Republican voters into certain districts while splitting Federalist votes throughout the state. Gerry's idea worked; in the following election, Republicans won 29 seats, and Federalists won 11.
Political parties have engaged in partisan gerrymandering throughout U.S. history. It is a powerful tool to influence political power, representation, and policy. Incumbents often engage in gerrymandering to keep political power.
In a way, gerrymandering is a form of voter suppression. Gerrymandering dilutes the impact of voters across districts. Political parties can strategically redraw district lines to, for example:
- Reduce an incumbent's chances at reelection
- Drop potential political challengers
- Gain a partisan advantage in states that are relatively divided politically
- Dilute minority votes
By splitting voters who share political beliefs into different districts, gerrymandering dilutes their influence in state and federal elections. Or, political parties can pack voters who share political beliefs into a few districts. This ensures fewer representatives from a particular political party. It also reduces the number of representatives for that party, reducing representation in the House of Representatives.
Election Protection: Voter ID and Registration Requirements
States and the federal government use several methods to protect the electoral process. First, these entities set basic requirements to cast a ballot. To vote in the United States, you must generally meet the following criteria:
- Be 18 or older
- Meet your state's residency requirements
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Register to vote before your state's registration deadline
Also, some states do not allow convicted felons to vote.
Every state (except North Dakota) uses voter registration to prevent voter fraud. Voter registration requires eligible voters to register with an election official before the election. Some states require voters to register before Election Day. Others allow voters to register on Election Day.
As of January 2024, 34 states have some variation of voter ID laws. Although the laws may vary by state, they generally need voters to present some form of identification before they cast their vote. Some states require voters to show a photo ID, such as a driver's license. Other states may allow non-photo IDs, like bank statements or insurance cards. Check your state's voter ID laws for specific information.
Both political parties support free and fair elections. But Republicans and Democrats tend to disagree on how to ensure such polls. Republicans support more restrictive laws that, they say, promote free and fair elections. Democrats argue against such laws, saying they suppress legitimate voters from casting a ballot and target disadvantaged groups.
Voter ID Laws
The basic argument for voter ID laws is that they prevent voter fraud and ensure fair elections. For example, supporters argue that requiring photo IDs helps to ensure a voter does not impersonate an otherwise eligible or registered voter. It also helps to prevent non-eligible voters from casting a ballot. Supporters also argue that requiring ID before casting a vote is not a burdensome request.
Critics of strict voter ID laws argue that they may suppress voters from exercising their right to vote. Critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), say that, of the people who don't have ID, most are "low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, elderly, or people with disabilities." The ACLU notes that in 2017, over 21 million Americans did not have the ID necessary to cast a ballot.
Voter Registration Laws
Another controversy surrounding election laws is around same-day voter registration. As of November 2023, 21 states and the District of Columbia allow election-day registration.
Supporters of same-day registration argue that it increases voter turnout and voting access, especially for young and minority voters. They also claim it doesn't undermine the electoral process because the states that allow it require people to provide identification.
Critics of same-day voter registration laws argue that they are counterproductive to ensuring election integrity. One argument is that these laws create "administrative chaos" on election day. Another is the burden it places on election officials, including collecting voter information and correctly counting ballots.
History of Voter Suppression Laws
At its beginning, the U.S. Constitution did not provide a universal right to vote. Instead, it let the states decide who could vote in federal, state, and local elections.
The United States has a long history of blocking certain Americans from voting. At first, only white, male property owners or taxpayers could vote in elections. After the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment gave voting rights to every man in America, regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
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 included:
- Poll taxes (a fee to register to vote)
- Residency requirements
- Literacy and comprehension tests
Women didn't get the right to vote until 1920. Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, and the states ratified it in 1920.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
After significant efforts from voting rights activists, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law. The Voting Rights Act regulated elections. Specifically, it:
- 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 (the Supreme Court banned poll taxes in 1966)
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, voter turnout for Black voters increased from 6% in 1964 to 59% in 1969.
Section Five: Disenfranchisement
Section Five of the Voting Rights Act contained rules that applied only to states or jurisdictions that engaged in voting discrimination. It prevented state legislatures from making any laws or practices affecting voting without approval from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Section Five had a "coverage formula" identifying the states or jurisdictions that had to get approval for voting rules. It included nine states and parts of six other states.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section Five's coverage formula was unconstitutional. The Court ruled that Section Five was unenforceable because Congress had failed to update the coverage formula.
Voter Suppression in Modern Times
Voting rights advocates say voter suppression is still a problem in the U.S. They say voter suppression affects voters of color more than white voters. Voters of color are not the only targets, they say.
This section details changes in state voting laws in recent years. It begins by describing how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the 2020 presidential election. It then discusses changes to state voting laws after the 2020 election.
COVID-19 and the 2020 Presidential Election
Voting amid a pandemic creates its own risk of voter suppression, particularly if voters do not feel safe visiting polling places. In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, many states had to change their voting procedures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. States had to determine how eligible voters could vote while remaining safe from the virus.
In some cases, states had to use larger spaces to host polling places. Many states had to invest in personal protection equipment for polling officials. These officials also had training on reducing contact with voters and other polling staff.
One of the biggest changes during the 2020 presidential election was the increased use of absentee or mail-in ballots. These laws allow some voters to mail ballots ahead of the election. These ballots were not new, as every state offered them in elections. But, given the pandemic, states had to prepare for a significant increase in the requests for and use of such ballots.
Before the election, President Donald Trump expressed his distrust of mail-in voting and how it could lead to voter fraud. As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) notes, the amount of absentee ballots cast in 2020 raised many "longstanding values-based questions" about such ballots. They note the following questions raised:
- "Does providing more access to absentee/mail voting degrade the American tradition of Election Day?"
- "Does more absentee/mail voting increase the likelihood for fraudulent use of absentee ballots?"
- "Or, does providing more absentee/mail voting make voting more convenient and therefore encourage more voter participation?"
- "Who uses absentee/mail voting? (See MIT's Some Demographics on Voting By Mail.)"
- "Does absentee/mail voting give an advantage to one party over the other? (The answer is mostly no; see a 2020 study from Stanford University.)"
President Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Trump did not concede the election. He also challenged the Electoral College. He alleged that Democrats stole the election, and he filed several lawsuits. To date, no court has found merit in those claims. For more information about lawsuits challenging the 2020 election, browse the Campaign Legal Center's website.
Changes To Voting Laws After the 2020 Election
Many states passed voting laws following the 2020 election cycle. These laws focused on ensuring free and fair elections. While each proposed bill varied, lawmakers focused on several issues, including:
- Photo ID requirements
- Early voting (mail-in ballots) and when early vote counting may begin
- New restrictions on voter registration
- Restrictions on restoring voting rights for past felons
While post-election lawmakers proposed more bills than usual, state legislatures enacted bills at pre-2020 levels. According to the NCSL, lawmakers nationwide introduced 3,677 election-related bills to state legislatures in 2021. This was a 25% increase in any odd-numbered year since the NCSL began tracking this information in 2001.
But, states only enacted 290 proposed bills, which tracked with numbers from the last several odd-numbered years. In 2022, legislators proposed 2,120 such bills, and states passed 280 of them.
Before 2020, most state laws were silent on voters' use of ballot boxes. Ballot boxes allow people to drop off their absentee ballots. At least 29 states now have laws on the states' provision of ballot boxes. Three states (Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas) have banned ballot boxes.
In 2021, Georgia passed a law requiring absentee voters to swear an oath. The oath requires the person to affirm or swear they are eligible to vote and they are requesting the absentee ballot for themselves. Anyone who signs the oath on behalf of another person could face a $100,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison.
Before the 2020 election, 30 states and the District of Columbia allowed states to process absentee ballots before Election Day. As of 2023, 40 states and D.C. allow pre-Election Day processing. The other 10 states begin processing absentee ballots on Election Day.
For more information about these new laws and other changes, read the NCSL's report.
Contact an Attorney
If you believe you have been the victim of voter discrimination or suppression, talk to a civil rights lawyer who knows about election law. If you know any group or person who attempts to suppress voters' rights, consider contacting law enforcement.