Washington Post: The long, complicated history of voter suppression in the U.S.
How Stuff Works: History of Voter Suppression in the U.S.
“Voters in 32 states may be in for a rude awakening when they arrive at the polls on Election Day, in the form of an ostensibly innocent question: “May I see your ID?” You’ve heard it before, of course, but the query could decide the next election.
New voter identification laws have sprung up across the country, requiring registered voters to show a government-issued identification card — a photo ID in 17 states — in order to cast a ballot [source: NCSL]. Supporters of these new voter ID laws argue that tighter security at polling stations cuts down on voter fraud and ensures cleaner elections. But critics of voter ID laws see something far more devious: a plot to disenfranchise or at least discourage targeted segments of the American electorate.
Voter suppression — also known as caging — is any action or behavior intended to deter an individual or group from voting. In the history of American politics, a wide range of dirty tactics have been used by both major political parties to intimidate or disqualify voters traditionally aligned with the opposition. During the “Jim Crow” era in the southern U.S., state and county governments evaded the 15th Amendment — prohibiting voter discrimination based on race or color — by imposing a series of literacy tests, poll taxes and even thuggish “poll workers” to block African-American voters from casting a ballot. Modern methods of voter suppression are more subtle, but the intention is the same: to employ legal and illegal means to affect voter turnout in an election.
Critics of voter ID laws are crying foul, accusing the states of imposing a solution in search of a problem, citing Justice Department statistics that voter fraud is extremely rare: 86 convictions out of 300 million votes cast in recent elections [source: Berman]. The real reason for the rash of new voter ID laws, critics argue, is that certain Democratic-leaning voters — African- and Hispanic-Americans, students, the elderly and the disabled — are less likely to possess a valid government-issued ID [source:American Civil Liberties Union]. Strict voter identification laws, they say, have the intended effect of discouraging or disqualifying traditionally Democratic voters.
Supporters of the voter ID laws insist that voter fraud, particularly by third-party voter registration groups and illegal immigrants, is a serious problem. Moreover, if requiring a photo ID to vote is discriminatory, where are the cries of civil rights violations at the airport security kiosk or the liquor store [source: Tobin]? In a landmark 2008 decision, the Supreme Court sided with voter ID supporters in Indiana, citing a “valid interest” in deterring fraud and finding no significant obstacles to obtaining an ID [source: Stout].
In an era of passionately partisan politics, both parties will do everything in their power to gain a political advantage during an election. The question is, when does a savvy political tactic become an unconstitutional breach of civil rights?
In the rest of this article, we’ll examine the line between dirty politics and voter suppression, and see where Congress and the Supreme Court have weighed in. Let’s start with a look at the ugly history of voter suppression in the U.S.
The history of voter suppression in the U.S. is really the history of voting rights in the U.S. To begin, it’s important (and surprising) to note that the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly include a right to vote [source: Fairvote.org]. In fact, only members of the House of Representatives were elected “by the people” according to the 1776 Constitution. Although the 17th Amendment enabled the direct election of U.S. senators, we still don’t directly elect our president; technically, that’s up to the Electoral College.
The original version of the Constitution and Bill of Rights left it entirely up to the states to determine who constituted “the people,” and therefore had a right to vote at all. At first, only white men — and freed African-American slaves in four states — who owned property were allowed to vote, then states slowly began to drop the property requirement, opening it up to all white males and some African-American males by 1850 [source: Keyssar]. All women, non-African-American minorities and many non-Christian religious groups were denied the franchise.
After the brief Reconstruction period following the Civil War, in which freed slaves earned the right to vote and hold office, there was a sharp political shift in the South. Even though the 15th Amendment formally extended the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” in 1870, newly elected conservative Democrats — known as Dixiecrats — began to impose a series of laws in 1877 designed to suppress the black vote.
These Jim Crow voting laws included requirements to pass literacy tests, nearly impossible for uneducated former slaves. Other states instituted poll taxes, a financial burden that many poor African-American (and whites) were either unable or unwilling to pay. Some precincts even held “whites only” primaries in direct opposition to federal law. Attempts to break or protest Jim Crow laws often met with deadly retribution. In fact, the intimidation and suppression campaign was so successful that only 3 percent of voting-age African-American southerners were registered to vote in 1940 [source:American Civil Liberties Union].
Although women were finally extended the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the federal government finally eradicated Jim Crow voting laws in the southern U.S. The Voting Rights Act explicitly banned any “test or device” to qualify voters on the basis of literacy, education or fluency in English [source: Department of Justice]. Poll taxes weren’t banned until 1966, when the Supreme Court found Virginia’s poll taxes to be unconstitutional [source: Department of Justice].
Unfortunately, the history of voter suppression didn’t end in the 1960s. On the next page, we’ll list a few of the most popular methods of voter suppression — many of which are still used today.
Intimidation has been a favorite tactic of voter suppression since the early days of Jim Crow. While open hostility and violence might have been the norm in the post-Reconstruction South, modern methods of intimidation are usually more subtle.
The Republican National Committee came under fire in the early 1980s when it sponsored the creation of a group called the National Ballot Security Task Force to patrol polling stations in search of voter fraud. The task force, staffed by off-duty police officers armed with loaded service revolvers and wearing blue armbands, was sued for steering black voters away from polling stations in New Jersey and forced to disband [source: Robbins]. In 2009, The Department of Justice sued members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (a group unaffiliated with the Black Panther Party of the 1960s) for brandishing a “police-style baton” to intimidate voters outside a Philadelphia polling station during the 2008 presidential election [source: Department of Justice]. And in 2012, advertising company Clear Channel Outdoor took down billboards in Ohio and Wisconsin noting the criminal consequences of voter fraud after public accusations of voter intimidation [source: Palmer].
Disinformation is another hugely popular tactic for suppressing votes in a target population. In the 2008 elections, Democrats in Nevada received robo-calls informing them that they could vote on November 5 — a day after the election — to avoid long lines. Hispanic voters in Nevada received similar messages saying that they could vote by phone [source: Freeman]. Voters in Lake County, Ohio, received official-looking mail stating that voters who had registered to vote through Democratic-leaning organizations would be barred from the 2008 election. And Michigan’s Secretary of State had to fight a phone-based disinformation campaign telling absentee voters to mail their ballots to the wrong address [source: Zernike].
While intimidation and disinformation are recognized examples of voter suppression, other methods are much more controversial. A strict voter ID law in Indiana, for example, has the blessing of the Supreme Court, yet the Justice Department has moved to block similar laws in Texas and South Carolina under accusations that the laws “(deny) or (abridge) the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group” [source: Chebium].
Similarly, a number of Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed laws barring convicted felons — even those who have served their time — from ever voting again. Other states have tightened the window for absentee, overseas and early voting, and banned same-day voter registration. Some states want to require voters to provide a proof of citizenship. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claim these laws have one purpose: to restrict and suppress the ability of minority, disabled and elderly voters from casting their vote [source:American Civil Liberties Union]. Supporters of these laws argue that increased restrictions only result in fairer, cleaner elections.”
Gutting of Section 5 from the Voting Rights Law (VRA)
In 2013 the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, gutted the Section 5 in the Voting Rights Law which required lawmakers in states with a history of discriminating against minority voters get federal permission before changing voting rules. At the time 9 states Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and dozens of counties and municipalities in other states, were currently trying to pass voter restrictions.
After the removal of Section 5 these states all passed variations of voter restrictions. Texas immediately announced after the decision that a voter identification law that had been blocked would go into effect immediately, and that redistricting maps there would no longer need federal approval. Changes in voting procedures in the places that had been covered by the law, including ones concerning restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.
Overall, 20 states have new restrictions in effect since the 2010 midterm election. Since 2010, a total of 10 states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place (and six states have strict photo ID requirements) seven have laws making it harder for citizens to register, six cut back on early voting days and hours, and three made it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.
Types of Voter Suppression
Voter ID laws
A total of 34 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls. Proponents say these laws decrease voter fraud or impersonation. The reality is voter fraud and impersonation is nearly non-existent. Opponents of voter ID laws claim the real reason behind these laws is to make it harder for people with economic or mobility disadvantages, who may not be able to afford the costs of IDs or physically capable of getting IDs, to vote. The people who lose their ability to vote due to voter ID laws, predominately are Democrats, while the politicians pushing Voter ID Laws are predominately Republicans.
To learn more about Voter ID laws follow this link.
Voter Registration Restrictions
According to the Brennan Center For Justice,
“In 2016, 14 states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. The new laws range from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration restrictions.
Those 14 states are: Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote.”
Permanent Removal of Voting Rights for Felons
According to National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)
“State approaches to felon disenfranchisement vary tremendously. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated. In Florida, Iowa and Virginia, felons and ex-felons permanently lose their right to vote. Virginia and Florida have supplementary programs which facilitate gubernatorial pardons. The remaining states each have their own approaches to the issue.
- In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most ex-felons automatically gain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentence.
- In some states, ex-felons must wait for a certain period of time after the completion of their sentence before rights can be restored.
- In some states, an ex-felon must apply to have voting rights restored.”
According to Think Progress,
“In Florida roughly 1.5 million Florida residents (almost 2.5 percent of the state’s population) are disenfranchised because of the law, which white lawmakers designed in the years after the Civil War in a deliberate attempt to dilute the voting power of freed slaves. This year, one in four of Florida’s black residents could not cast a ballot.”
Early Voting Restrictions
Allow early voting, especially Sunday voting, has increased the ability for people to cast their votes while decreasing lines to vote. Historically, early voting has favored the Democrats in some key states. Which is the reason why republican state legislators cut back on early voting days for 6 states in 2016.
Unfair Voting Resource Distribution
According to Vox,
“Southern states, known for their history of racial voter suppression, closed down at least 868 polling places for the 2016 election. Polling place closures are a particularly common and pernicious tactic for disenfranchising voters of color. Decisions to shutter or reduce voting locations are often made quietly and at the last minute, making pre-election intervention or litigation virtually impossible. These changes can place an undue burden on minority voters, who may be less likely to have access to public transportation or vehicles, given continuing disparities in socioeconomic resources. Once an election is conducted, there is no judicial remedy for the loss of votes that were never cast because a voter’s usual polling place has disappeared.
There can be valid reasons for shutting down polling places, particularly budget constraints. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, the federal government could oversee state and local governments’ decisions to shut down polling places to ensure they weren’t meant to disenfranchise minority voters. After Section 5 was removed from the Civil Rights Act all oversight of which polling stations to close is left almost entirely to highly partisan, potentially racist state and local governments.”
Voter Registration Purges
According to Project Vote,
“Under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), states are tasked with maintaining current and accurate voter registration databases. However, the lack of clear and uniform standards for list maintenance has resulted in inconsistent standards from state to state, and poorly developed “voter purge” programs have often led to the mass disenfranchisement of eligible voters. Frequently, such ill-conceived purge programs have had a disproportionate impact on minority populations.
The removal of voters from the rolls needs to be undertaken with the greatest of care, and in complete compliance with the standards established by federal law, including the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which contains a number of procedural protections to protect eligible voters from wrongful removals.”
In the 2016 election voting rights advocates in North Carolina filed an emergency petition in federal court alleging that at least three counties in the state have engaged in a systematic effort to purge voters, including a disproportionate number of African Americans, from the voter rolls in the final weeks before the election. Due to the evidence presented the Federal Judge ordered North Carolina to restore the purged voter registrations.
Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program
According to the Voting News:
“Back in 2005, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — who as chair of his state’s Republican Party championed an illegal voter suppression technique called “caging” — launched a program called Interstate Crosscheck to compare voter registration data across states and ferret out evidence of double voting. The program has since expanded to 30 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), but it’s been controversial from the start. For one thing, it’s resulted in very few actual cases of fraud being referred for prosecution, as alleged cases of double voting in multiple states turned out to be clerical and other errors. One tally found that while the program has flagged 7.2 million possible double registrants, no more than four have actually been charged with deliberate double registration or double voting. Meanwhile, some states including Florida dropped out of the program due to doubts about the reliability of its data — though others, including the swing state of North Carolina, joined despite those issues”
Republicans often use the excuse of voter fraud to justify large voter purges which are often cleric errors. Before a voter is purge they are suppose to be sent a letter confirmation to reverse the purge. These notifications happen just before the election and are often missed resulting in way more legal voters getting purge than stopping illegal voters from voting twice.
According to Rolling Stones, the Crosscheck list disproportionately threatens solid Democratic constituencies: young, black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters – with some of the biggest possible purges underway in Ohio and North Carolina, two crucial swing states with tight Senate races.
Read more about Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program at Rolling Stone: The GOP’s Stealth War Against Voters
For a whole page on gerrymander please follow this link.
2016 Voter Suppression
According to Think Progress,
- Voter ID laws
- Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law in 2011, and it has been tied up in court battles for years. A federal court held that the law unconstitutionally burdens low-income people of color, but ultimately the Supreme Court allowed it to go into effect for the 2016 election.
- Donald Trump won the state by fewer than 30,000 votes. According to the state’s own records, ten times that many eligible voters in the state — as many as 300,000 people — lacked the proper ID and may have been disenfranchised.
- Neil Albrecht, the executive director of Milwaukee’s Election Commission, believes the policy depressed turnout in the blue counties Clinton desperately needed to carry Wisconsin. Compared to 2012, 60,000 fewer people voted in this year Milwaukee — the county that holds the vast majority of the state’s black population. Statewide, turnout was the lowest it has been for a presidential election in two decades.
- In the final weeks leading up to the election, voting rights groups discovered that Wisconsin officials at local DMV offices were giving false information to voters attempting to get the proper ID, putting those officials in violation of a federal court order.
- In 2013, North Carolina — led by the GOP — approved a law that eliminated same-day voter registration, cut a full week of early voting, barred voters from casting a ballot outside their home precincts, scrapped straight-ticket voting, and got rid of a program to pre-register high school students who would turn 18 by Election Day. That law also included one of the nation’s strictest voter ID requirements.
- Federal courts struck down most of the law after finding that it was passed with the intention to suppress African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.” The court noted that the lawmakers first studied which racial demographics used which voting methods, and then moved to eliminate those favored by black residents. The law was a perfect example, the judge wrote, of “the inevitable tendency of elected officials to entrench themselves by targeting groups unlikely to vote for them.”
- Republican-controlled county elections boards tried to find a way around the verdict. No longer able to cut a full week of early voting, the state GOP instructed the boards to make “party line changes to early voting”: cutting hours and locations and cutting out Sunday voting. Three additional county boards of election were successfully sued by the state NAACP for discriminatory purges of black names from voter rolls.
- Though some of the most extreme cuts were blocked by the state board of elections, many remained in place through the election. For example, Guilford County reduced the number of polling sites in the first week of early voting from 16 in 2012 to just 1 this year. A GOP memo issued at the end of the state’s early voting period celebrated the inevitable results of those cutbacks: African American turnout had dropped nearly nine percent.
- In counties that slashed early voting hours and sites, voters also had to wait in lines several hours long to cast their ballots. A new Harvard study found that such long waits not only disenfranchise working-class voters who can’t afford to wait, but also discourages voters from participating in future elections.
- Florida is one of just three states that permanently disenfranchise anyone with a felony conviction. The state has no automatic process for former felons to regain their voting rights. Instead, people have to travel to the state capital and proactively request that the governor grant them clemency on an individual basis.
- That process has become even more difficult since Republican Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2011. During governor Charlie Crist’s four years in office, more than 150,000 people had their rights restored. Voting advocates claimed that even that number did not go far enough, given the long backlog of applications. But when Scott took office, the clemency board changed its rules and progress slowed to a crawl. In his first term as governor, fewer than 1,600 people have had their rights restored.
- In total, roughly 1.5 million Florida residents (almost 2.5 percent of the state’s population) are disenfranchised because of the law, which white lawmakers designed in the years after the Civil War in a deliberate attempt to dilute the voting power of freed slaves. This year, one in four of Florida’s black residents could not cast a ballot.
- Clinton lost Florida by just 119,770 votes
2017 Proposed Voter Suppression Bills
According to a Nation article,
“46 bills have been introduced in 21 states, mostly controlled by Republicans, that would make it harder to vote…
voter ID will likely be considered in the legislature, with the possibility of more restrictive bills originating in the capital.At least 12 states are already considering stricter voter-ID legislation—Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming. Arkansas and North Dakota’s bills have already passed in their state Houses. Legislation from the Iowa secretary of state to implement
Along with Virginia, Texas legislators have introduced legislation that would create strict documentary proof of citizenship requirements to register. In Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire, legislation has been introduced to eliminate or limit Election Day registration, and bills that restrict students’ ability to claim residency where they live and go to school have been introduced in Arizona, Maine, and New Hampshire. Legislators in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, and Texas have introduced legislation that would cut back on early-voting opportunities.
Numerous states have seen legislation that threatens individuals or groups who help others vote or register. Legislation making it more difficult to help others deliver their absentee ballots has been proposed in three states: Arizona, Montana, and New York. Virginia legislators have introduced burdensome requirements on community-based voter registration, along with increased penalties for alleged misconduct. In Texas, a bill has been proposed to make it harder to offer voter assistance, undermining a court settlement last year.”
Brennan Center: Restricting the Vote
Brennan Center: New Voting Restrictions in Place for 2016 Presidential
Project Vote: Protecting the Voter Rolls
Rolling Stones: The GOP’s Stealth War Against Voters