The process of voting should be as efficient and accessible as possible, and to a great extent, it is. However, throughout the United States, there are no shortage of legislators and political groups making it more difficult to cast a ballot. With the 2020 presidential election well on its way, a deeper understanding of our country’s sordid history of voter suppression is instrumental to a free and fair election in November. 

A Complicated History

When the U.S. Constitution was framed, the only people who had the right to vote were white men who owned property. The original versions of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights essentially left the decision of who constituted “the people” up to each state. As a result, before 1850, voting rights were only offered to property-owning white men in most states and freed (black) men in four. During the post-Civil War Reconstruction Period in the American South, freed slaves earned the right to vote and run for office. Despite the fact that the 15th Amendment gave men the right to vote without regard to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” on paper, conservative Democrats—better known as Dixiecrats—were able to retake Southern elected positions by utilizing paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts and the White League to intimidate black voters and began imposing Jim Crow laws. 

From the 1870s until 1965, Jim Crow laws not only suppressed the vote of black and impoverished white Americans through literacy tests, poll taxes, and ‘whites-only’ primaries (a direct violation of the Constitution), they also perpetuated a standard of racial segregation.  

This suppression of black Americans allowed Dixiecrats to infest public offices and perpetuate racist and classist policies. Between 1890 and 1910, eleven former Confederate states passed new state constitutions or amendments to their state constitutions that were specifically targeted to make literacy tests difficult for black and uneducated white voters. As a result of these measures, voter turnout plummeted. By 1900 in Louisiana, despite making up the majority of the population, black voters only made up 5,320 slots on voter rolls out of 130,757 voters. By 1910, only 730, or less than 0.5%, of eligible black voters were registered as a result of “statutory suffrage restrictions.” In North Carolina, black voters were entirely eliminated from the rolls between 1896 and 1904. Policies like this spread all over the American South, silencing the black vote. 

The original era of Jim Crow came to an end with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, wherein the federal government attempted to eradicate the effects of Jim Crow laws on voting by explicitly banning any “test or device” that would qualify voters based on literacy, education, or fluency in English. Poll taxes, however, weren’t barred until 1966 when the United States ratified the 24th Amendment that prohibited poll taxes in any capacity. 

The Resurgence of Discrimination and Suppression

If such suppression efforts have been banned, why is voter suppression still an issue? To put it simply, legislators have found ways either around or through the constitutionally upheld prohibitions, essentially reviving Jim Crow in the eyes of some political scholars. In the 2006 Senate election in Virginia, Secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections Jean Jensen concluded that voter suppression was ubiquitous and was mostly executed through phone calls to Democratic voters either telling them that voting would lead to their arrest or pretending to be volunteers for Democratic candidate Jim Webb, informing voters that their polling locations had changed when they had not. 

The months leading up to the 2008 presidential election had several notable incidents regarding voter suppression in several states. The most prevalent method used was the “no match, no vote” policy, which is an intentional misinterpretation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) that essentially takes a voter’s information on their registration form and searches for a match in a database. If no match is found, the registration is outright denied. The most reported incidents of “no match, no vote”  were in Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin

Aside from the abuse of “no match, no vote” policies, 2008 was a year of voter purges in many states. Michigan was sued by the ACLU for unlawfully purging voter rolls within 90 days of an election and testing the addresses of registered voters by sending out non-forwardable mail and removing any voters whose mail was bounced back. The Michigan District Court ordered that 14,000 voters be reinstated so they would be able to vote in the 2008 presidential election. In response to a 2008 article in the New York Times, the Colorado Secretary of State came forward and admitted to purging approximately 2,500 voters within 90 days of a federal election, removing several thousand additional records citing they were potential duplicates, and using non-forwardable mail to test the registered address on voters’ registrations. Voting rights groups jumped on this admission and filed a lawsuit in federal court which resulted in a court-approved agreement between the two parties in which the Colorado Secretary of State ensured that any wrongfully purged voters would be reinstated. The very next day, the Secretary of State announced to reporters that he was planning to continue voter purges before he was promptly ordered to stop by a district judge.  

In the Maryland gubernatorial election of 2010, it is alleged that Republican candidate Bob Ehrlich had hired a political consultant who advised “the first and most desired outcome is voter suppression” is having “African-American voters stay home.” In response to the advice, Republicans placed thousands of robocalls informing Democratic voters that the Democratic candidate, Martin O’Malley, had won, despite the fact the polls were open for another two hours. The next year, Ehrlich’s campaign manager, Paul Schurick, was convicted of election fraud. 

Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Shelby County v. Holder, a case that argued parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) regulating the voter rolls of former Confederate states were a violation of Article IV of the U.S. Constitution. The sections of the VRA that incited the case were Section 5, which “prohibits eligible districts from enacting changes to their election laws and procedures without gaining official authorization” and Section 4(b), which defines “the eligible districts as ones that had a voting test in place as of November 1, 1964, and less than 50% turnout for the 1964 presidential election.” Districts that fell within those parameters were required to prove to the Attorney General or a three-judge panel of a Washington, D.C. District Court that a change in their voter rolls or voter laws “neither has the purpose nor will have the effect” of suppressing any individual’s right to vote based on minority status. The Supreme Court delivered its verdict of Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act as being unconstitutional with a 5-4 ruling. Although the VRA was not entirely gutted, its power was significantly decreased.

Voter Suppression Since 2016

The 2013 ruling from the Supreme Court made the 2016 election the first presidential election held without all of the protections from the original Voting Rights Act in fifty years. A total of fourteen states had new voting restrictions in place. 

  • In Kansas, a federal judge struck down a law in early 2016 that required voters to show proof of citizenship in cases where the voter had used a national voter registration form. That May, a federal judge ordered the state of Kansas to begin registering approximately 18,000 voters whose registrations had been delayed because of the lack of proof of citizenship. In response, Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, who has been sued repeatedly by the ACLU for trying to restrict voting rights in Kansas, ordered that the voters be registered as required for federal elections, but not for state and local elections. Two months later, a county judge struck down Kobach’s order. However, these strikes led to a legal battle that lasted until 2018
  • In 2013, the North Carolina State House passed a bill that requires voters to show a photo ID issued by North Carolina, a passport, or a military identification card and it was set to be enforced in 2016. Out-of-state drivers licenses were to be accepted only if the voter registered within 90 days of the election, and university photo identification was not acceptable. In July 2016, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law‘s photo ID requirement, finding that the new voting provisions targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision,” and that the legislators had acted with clear “discriminatory intent” in enacting these policies, shaping the policies based on data they received about African-American registration and voting patterns. 
  • A law in North Dakota requiring the address listed on a voter ID be a residential address, which  would have disenfranchised large numbers of Native Americans who do not always have residential addresses if they live on tribal land, was overturned in July 2016. The judge who overturned the law wrote in response to the law: “The undisputed evidence before the Court reveals that voter fraud in North Dakota has been virtually non-existent.”
  • In April 2016, a lawsuit was filed challenging Ohio’s decades-old policy of purging infrequent voters from the rolls with regularity because it violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. In June, a district court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and entered a preliminary injunction applied only to the November 2016 election. In November of 2017, the case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court where the original Ohio law was upheld.
  • In 2018, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit in Waller County, Texas that alleged the county has tried to disenfranchise students at Prairie View A&M, a historically black university, through several methods, the most prevalent being cutting down on early voting on the college campus. The university’s polling station availability was reduced to three days for early voting compared to other stations in the county, including a nearby A&M campus that is mostly white, which were given up to two weeks. 
  • In Wisconsin, a federal judge found that the state’s restrictive voter ID law led to “real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities” and, given that there was no evidence of widespread voter impersonation in Wisconsin, found that the law was “a cure worse than the disease.” In addition to imposing strict voter ID requirements, the law cut back on early voting, required people to live in a ward for at least 28 days before voting, and prohibited emailing absentee ballots to voters. A study by Priorities USA estimates that strict ID laws in Wisconsin led to a significant decrease in voter turnout in 2016, with a notably greater effect on Democratic-leaning voters. 
  • In Iowa, lawmakers passed a strict voter ID law with the potential to disenfranchise 260,000 voters. Out of 1.6 million votes cast in Iowa in 2016, there were only 10 allegations of voter fraud; none were cases of impersonation that a voter ID law could have prevented. Paul Pate, the Iowa Secretary of State and creator of the bill, even admitted, “We’ve not experienced widespread voter fraud in Iowa.” 

Data On Voter Fraud

Voter fraud is a commonly used justification for such extreme policies, even when the actual occurrence of voter fraud is incredibly low. A 2017 Brennan Center report found that “most reported incidents of voter fraud are traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices,” and actual incidents of voter fraud were at rates between 0.0003 and 0.0025 percent. Since the incident rate is so minuscule, the report noted that it is more likely that “…an American will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” Another study published by a political scientist at Columbia University tracked instances of voter fraud over the course of two years and found the fraud, in the rare times it occurred, was traceable to “false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief, and administrative or voter error.”

What The Government Is Doing Now

Despite statistics demonstrating that the risk of voter fraud is beyond negligible, the Trump Administration has taken and encouraged measures to combat it. In May of 2017, President Trump established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, stating its purpose was to prevent voter fraud. This commission was led by Kansas attorney general Kris Kobach, who is known to be a staunch advocate of strict voter ID laws and a proponent of the Crosscheck system. Crosscheck is a national database designed to check for voters who are registered in more than one state by comparing names and dates of birth. Researchers at Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and Microsoft found that for every legitimate instance of double registration it finds, Crosscheck’s system offers around 200 false positives. Critics of President Trump’s commission alleged its true purpose was to suppress the vote of minority groups. 

On a more local scale, other Republicans have begun being less than subtle in their intentions as well. Several court rulings say that voting rules written by Republicans are being written with partisanship in mind. Arizona has criminalized collecting absentee ballots for transport to a voting station, a commonly practiced method for getting-out-the-vote. In November 2019, Justin Clark, a top adviser to President Trump ,in a twenty-minute audio clip obtained by American Bridge, was quoted as saying “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places, let’s start protecting our voters. We know who they are… Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020.” When asked about these remarks by the Associated Press, Clark replied with: “As should be clear from the context of my remarks, my point was that Republicans historically have been falsely accused of voter suppression…” In response to this incident, Mike Browne, the deputy director of One Wisconsin Now, said Justin Clark’s comments in the meeting suggest the Trump campaign plans to engage in “underhanded tactics” to win the election: “The strategy to rig the rules in elections and give themselves an unfair partisan advantage goes to Donald Trump, the highest levels of his campaign and the top Republican leadership…”

Although new state laws and policies will affect the 2020 election, the most notable change from 2016 will be the fact that, for the first time in nearly forty years, the Republican National Committee will be able to participate in monitoring ballot security after having its right to participate revoked in 1982. After a suit from the Committee’s Democratic counterpart that alleged the RNC had helped intimidate black voters in the New Jersey election for governor, a consent decree was issued barring the RNC from participating in ballot security from 1982 until 2018. Now that the decree has been lifted, the Trump campaign will not have to solely rely on its staffers to monitor polls. 

What 2020 Will Look Like

In summary, the main concerns with the 2020 election, from a voter accessibility standpoint, are the intimidation of minority voters and difficulty of accessing voter registration or actual voting stations, both of which are forms of voter suppression. Many states are notorious for practicing voter intimidation and false claims like the ones made by Texas’s former Secretary of State David Whitley in 2019 have caused concern in minority and immigrant communities over what may happen if they register to vote.

Access to voter registration and voting are equally thorny. In 2018, for example, Tennessee tried to criminalize voter registration drives and was working on a bill in 2019 that would make it harder to vote. Counties all over the country have been undersupplying voting booths which lengthens wait times to vote and can drive away voters who may only have an hour off of work to vote before they are penalized at their jobs. Security issues in elections after ballots have been cast have begun posing a concern as well, since Georgia’s election officials “lost” 127,000 votes. These missing ballots were almost entirely contained to predominantly black precincts where citizens had been able to show up to voting booths to cast a ballot in-person. 

Even if in-state hacking issues weren’t a concern, the voting system used in the 2018 midterms was incredibly insecure and are a serious security risk for foreign interference in any upcoming elections. The biggest interferences have been and are projected to be in precincts that are primarily Black or Latinx, which will slant the election greatly. 

Voter suppression affects all people within a democracy, as democracy is founded on the basic principle of the right to vote. The sheer persistence and prominence of voter suppression points to a lack  of confidence in party platforms and in the virtue of democracy itself. When it is denied to any group of citizens, the democratic system starts to break down. The outcome of an election becomes slanted, unfair, and will always have more negative effects than positive effects, regardless of what candidate or party wins. Hopefully, American citizens will be able to become more aware and more active in pushing for everyone’s right to vote, ensuring that politicians have to listen to the will of the people and provide and protect the right to vote for all Americans. 

Bio: Sadie is a 16-year-old high school junior based in Louisiana. She is an Early College student working on her Associate of the Arts in Humanities and a heavily involved activist who works with Students Demand Action, This Is Zero Hour, the ACLU, Celebrating Differences, the Sunrise Movement, and Brand New Congress