Introduction

Imagine you were alive in 1788, the year that the U.S. Constitution was ratified and American democracy was born. You would only need to reach voting age, and then you could finally have a say in your government – right? 

Explanation

Probably not. Voting rights have expanded over the past centuries. Now, it’s commonly believed that every citizen can make their voice heard in the electoral process. However, this is not always true. A variety of laws make it hard and sometimes impossible to vote in local, state, and federal elections. These laws perpetuate what is often called voter suppression.

Voter Suppression

Voter suppression refers to any measure that makes it more difficult for a certain group of eligible voters to cast their ballots. Often, these measures are justified as necessary to prevent voter fraud, or instances where a ballot is cast illegally by an ineligible voter or someone impersonating a voter at the polls. However, these tactics are often used to discourage certain people from voting altogether, and ultimately change the election outcome. 

History

When it was first ratified, the United States Constitution did not specify voting eligibility, and states were left to define who was allowed to cast a ballot. As a result, the early elections were only open to white men who owned property or paid taxes. This fundamentally suppressed groups like women, enslaved peoples, people of color, and low-income Americans. 

Over time, voting rights expanded, largely as a result of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed African American men to vote, and the 19th Amendment, which allowed women to vote. However, many legislators and policymakers felt threatened by these new voting demographics. New measures were passed to restrict access to the ballot, especially in southern states, where there were large populations of African American voters.

Some of the most common and effective measures were the use of poll taxes and literacy tests. A poll tax required prospective voters to pay a fee in order to receive a ballot. This method was commonly used from the late 1800s until 1964, when the 24th Amendment officially ended the practice. A literacy test is a reading-based test seemingly designed to measure whether a prospective voter is literate enough to cast an educated vote. These tests were often administered by highly biased judges that failed nearly every African American who took the test, including some who were college-educated. The Voting Rights Act of 1964 prohibited such testing in certain places and extended this prohibition to the entire country in 1970.

How it Works

There are, however, some forms of voter suppression that still occur. The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, lists five “rampant methods” that happen today:

 

  • Voter ID Laws. These laws require voters to show identification at the polls, such as a driver’s license or passport. Usually, the identification must include a photo and be issued by the government. Millions of Americans cannot afford the costs associated with the process of getting an ID card, and they are then unable to cast their vote.
  • Voter Registration Restrictions. These laws add extra regulations for voter registration, including forcing potential voters to prove their citizenship and restricting the amount of time voters have to register before an election. This can significantly decrease voter turnout.
  • Voter Purges. “Purges” occur when states or localities remove mass amounts of voters from their lists. This happens routinely when voters die or move out of state; however, often even voters that are eligible are removed due to incorrect information or for reasons such as not voting in previous elections. These individuals usually don’t even know they have been deemed ineligible until they arrive at the polls and are turned away.
  • Felony Disenfranchisement. Many states take an individual’s voting rights away, a process called disenfranchisement, when they have sustained a felony conviction. These individuals may be unable to vote while imprisoned or even for the rest of their life, depending on state laws.
  • Gerrymandering. This is a process by which elected officials are able to essentially choose their voters by drawing the lines of legislative districts in ways that advantage themselves or disadvantage other groups. For example, one party’s official may draw a legislative district around an area that includes high numbers of the other party’s voters. Doing so contains opposition to one place and leaves surrounding districts with lower numbers of these voters, assuring the official’s victory in future elections. Gerrymandering is generally racial or partisan in nature, meaning that district lines are drawn to advantage or disadvantage certain racial groups or voters of a particular party. 

So What?

We can all advocate for policies that ensure every citizen is able to vote. Allowing for voter registration forms to be filled out online or on the same day as an election makes the process much easier. Putting pressure on legislators to limit the use of voter ID laws, implement restrictions on voter purging, and use independent or non-partisan commissions to draw state lines are all strategies to combat voter suppression and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to make their voice heard.

    Learn More

    1. “Vote Suppression.” Brennan Center for Justice, www.brennancenter.org/issues/ensure-every-american-can-vote/vote-suppression
    2. “Fighting Voter Suppression.” ACLU, https://www.aclu.org/issues/voting-rights/fighting-voter-suppression.
    3. Abrams, Stacey et al. Voter Suppression in U.S. Elections, edited by Jim Downs, University of Georgia Press, 2020.

    Think Further

    1. How is voter suppression a self-reinforcing cycle? In other words, why does it keep happening?
    2. Think about the motivations of elected officials in power. Why might voter suppression be a difficult problem to combat through policy changes? 
    3. What can you do to make sure your vote is counted?

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