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

The United States has a long history of blocking certain Americans from voting. 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 this time, called 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 at suppressing the Black vote. 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 states or jurisdictions that were engaging in egregious voting discrimination to disenfranchise minority voters. It prevented state legislatures 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 over white voters, 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 laws such as accepting only certain kinds of IDs, requiring certain kinds of documentation to get IDs, and 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
  • Voter purges (when eligible voters are removed from voter rolls improperly, often without notice to voters)
  • Felony disenfranchisement

Voting barrier examples include:

  • Closing polling stations. For example, between 2012 and 2018, 8% of voting precincts in Georgia were closed and 40% of voting precincts were relocated in the state, preventing between 54,000 to 85,000 voters from voting on Election Day in 2018
  • Barriers related to disability
  • Voter intimidation tactics like armed observers at polling places
  • Long lines at voting 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 partisan gerrymandering was too political in nature, and has to be addressed by elected branches of government, not the federal courts.

Voter Suppression in the Time of COVID-19

COVID-19 has affected nearly all aspects of life in 2020, including this year's presidential election, set to take place on Nov. 3. Voting amid a pandemic creates its own risk of voter suppression, particularly if would-be voters are prevented from casting their ballots because they do not feel safe visiting polling places.

While some states sent out absentee ballots or applications to all voters during the primary elections in light of the coronavirus pandemic, many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have stated that this invites voter fraud, a claim many argue is not backed by evidence. On the other side of the political aisle, Democrats argue that too many restrictions on absentee voting will result in voter suppression. 

record-setting 186 lawsuits related to the 2020 general election and the coronavirus have been filed in 42 states as of the beginning of August.

For example, lawsuits in Tennessee, Texas, and Missouri have asked courts to expand absentee voting as these states require a reason such as disability to avoid in-person voting. Only 34 states and the District of Columbia currently allow no-excuse absentee voting.

Ultimately, the rules around who can cast absentee ballots and how they can be cast will vary by state and jurisdiction. The biggest thing voters can do to protect their right to vote is to pay attention to local absentee voting requirements (if they plan to vote absentee) in the weeks and days leading up to the election to make sure their ballots are counted.

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 the Brennan Center for Justice, 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.

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