In the past few years, states across the country have created barriers to voting. These are intentional practices to impede or even halt otherwise eligible voters’ right to enfranchisement. This includes practices like voter ID and proof-of-citizenship restrictions on eligible voters, reducing polling place hours in communities of color, cutting early voting opportunities and purging voters from the rolls.
The idea of voter suppression goes back centuries, but it reached a high point in the U.S. during the Jim Crow era. These were the so-called “separate but equal” laws enacted after the Civil War that maintained racial segregation and inferior treatment of Black people in the South.
Aggressive voter suppression was integral to Jim Crow legislation, including literacy tests and poll taxes as a prerequisite to voting. To put an end to it, Congress passed the seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing the discriminatory voting practices adopted in Southern states under Jim Crow. It was an “act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution,” and was signed into law 95 years after the amendment was ratified.
Since the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, legislators have been introducing and passing voter suppression laws again. Under the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions that had a history of voter suppression laws were required to undergo federal scrutiny (called “preclearance”) before passing any new voting legislation. In Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated the preclearance requirement. The 5-to-4 vote freed nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that discrimination still exists, but not sufficiently to warrant the “extraordinary” remediation measures that the act imposed on the states of the former Confederacy. Immediately following the decision, states began passing new voter suppression laws. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, ninety-nine bills designed to diminish voter access were introduced in 2018 in thirty-one state legislatures.
Within as little as two days, states passed laws that effectively eliminated the protection of the previous forty-eight years. Many of these states were outside the South. Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Dakota and other states quickly set about circumscribing the right to poor voters, people of color, and young people.
The specifics of voter ID laws vary from state to state, but they all center around proving that you are who you say you are prior to voting, usually through a driver’s license, passport, or other government-issued photo ID. While this might sound reasonable at first glance, in truth over 11% of eligible voters do not have government-issued identification. Proponents of voter ID laws claim this is the only way to stop voter fraud, but in reality voter fraud is almost non-existent.
Voter ID laws disproportionately affect people of color, women, the LBGTQ community, disabled people, low-income people, the elderly, and students. Many citizens find it extremely hard to get government photo IDs, because they require underlying documentation (like birth certificates), which you must already have an ID to get, and is often difficult or expensive to come by.
One voter ID tactic is to reduce access to an “acceptable” photo identification. Some states close departments of motor vehicles, forcing people to travel long distances just to apply for a photo identification card – added difficulty for someone who doesn’t already have a driver’s license. An additional tactic is to severely limit the hours of operation for these DMVs, restricting access for wage-earners with inflexible work schedules.
Some states have enacted a requirement to repeatedly register to vote, especially if one has changed address, name, marital status, and so forth. This increases the likelihood that the voter might neglect to re-register to vote (see “Ohio” below).
Voter purging is another tactic that might seem reasonable on its face, but has been abused since the 2013 Supreme Court Shelby vs. Holder decision as a form of voter suppression. In its purest form, voter purging involves striking individual from voter rolls that no longer live in the area. For example, if someone moves from Macon County, Georgia to New York, they should no longer be able to vote in Macon County.
Roll purging is used heavily for voter suppression by removing eligible voters from the rolls, often without their knowledge. For example, in very large states like Texas, multiple people may have the same name and birthday. The state may purge (or both!) from the rolls, without checking first to see if they are false duplicates.
A related tactic is “caging,” where voters are sent registered mail, and voters at addresses that are undeliverable are then challenged as fraudulent. Most voters have no idea they have been removed from the rolls until Election Day, when it is usually too late.
Elections almost always fall on a Tuesday, which can make it difficult for individuals who work during the week or have other family obligations. Early voting, and absentee ballots, are practices that were put in place to provide more flexible voting options and ensure that every voter has a chance to cast a ballot. In 1980, approximately 4 million ballots were cast ahead of the election; in 2016, more than 47 million people voted early. Since 2010, 10 states have enacted legislation restricting early voting, and only 39 states plus the District of Columbia currently allow early voting.
Since elections are paid for at the local level, the ability to staff those polls is not standardized across states. Less funding means fewer staff, which in turn means longer lines to vote. This (especially when paired with early voting cuts) means longer wait times at the ballot box, and more time away from voters’ jobs (since most elections are on Tuesday during business hours). Overall, it is more difficult for the average person to vote, and disproportionately more difficult for low-income people and wage-earners.
Gerrymandering is the strategic manipulation of electoral maps. It can and usually does establish a political advantage for a particular party, historically the GOP, and often discriminates against certain classes of voters. Republicans are pushing voter suppression policies to limit minorities voting enhance the impact of partisan gerrymanders.
At the very end of its 2019 term in June, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution does not prohibit partisan gerrymandering. The case, Rucho v. Common Cause, will loom large as we move towards critical state elections in key chambers all over the country in 2020. While this decision was both disappointing and wrongheaded, progressives can still make an impact in the 2021 redistricting process.
In almost every state, individuals who are convicted of a felony lose their right to vote. In theory, once they have served their time, their debt to society is paid, and voting rights should be re-established. However, some states have regulations that make it difficult or impossible for those people to vote.
One egregious example is Florida, where, until recently, people convicted of a felony permanently lost their right to vote. This affected well over one million people in Florida, and there has even been speculation that Al Gore might have won the presidency in 2000 if this law had not been in place. However, after years of organizing, in 2018 Florida voters passed an amendment to the state’s constitution that will re-enfranchise felons who have served their time.
To date, over 6 million people who should be eligible to vote have been subject to felon disenfranchisement. This affects minorities disproportionately, as Black people are incarcerated at grossly outsized rates to their non-Black counterparts.