For generations, voter suppression has been an issue in the United States. It has evolved over time into more inconspicuous forms, but they are all a threat to the validity of our democracy.
Voter suppression disadvantages all kinds of people, from the uneducated, the elderly, to People of Color and individuals with disabilities. It is unconstitutional to discriminate or to suppress the voting rights of any one of these groups and yet, suppression is rampant across the U.S.
Efforts to eliminate the voices of Black Americans and other minorities were the foundation of voter suppression. After the Civil War, the implementation of poll taxes disenfranchised the poor, but excluded poor white people due to a grandfather clause. The poll tax required voters to pay a voting fee and the grandfather clause allowed those with white ancestors who voted before the Civil War to be excused from the fee.
Literacy tests prevented uneducated, mostly Black people who were banned from learning to read or write due to anti-literacy laws, from exercising their right to vote. These tests were nearly impossible to pass as they contained information the average citizen could not know. The test administrator was the deciding factor on whether the test taker answered the questions correctly, allowing their bias to play a role in who could or could not vote.
Since then, more advanced forms of voter suppression have emerged from requiring voter ID, voter registration, prohibiting felons from voting, gerrymandering and the removal of ballot boxes.
In the U.S., 34 states require a form of identification to vote. Government-issued photo identification, such as a birth certificate or passport, can be difficult to access and usually comes at a price. The fees needed to obtain these documents, transportation costs and time spent waiting in lines are obstacles that affect all voters and which a global pandemic amplifies. Indigenous folk and people in low-income communities are especially affected.
NPR reported in 2016, “Almost a quarter of Native Americans in [North Dakota], otherwise eligible to vote, don’t have proper ID; that’s only true for 12% of non-Indians.”
Voter identification laws discourage voters and unfairly discriminate against certain groups. In Texas, a handgun licenseis acceptable as voter ID, but a college student ID is not. This discriminates against a large majority of the eligible voting population. Also in Texas, a court ruled in 2016 that the state’s voter ID law had a discriminatory impact on minority voters and needed to be changed.
Simply having voter ID laws is unfair in itself, but adding ID requirements specific enough to disenfranchise entire groups of eligible voters is threatening democracy. Voter ID laws are designed to prevent and stop voter fraud, but voter fraud is tremendously rare. When it does occur, it is usually a computer mistake or human error, not intentional fraud, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
The FBI announced that voter fraud has not occured on a national scale and they are always investigating potential threats.
“We have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said.
The Washington Post reported of one billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014, there were only 31 cases of voter fraud.
Requiring voters to preregister is another form of voter suppression. Some deadlines demand voters to register anywhere from months to weeks ahead of the election, which deters many eligible voters.
As of October, 21 states including Washington D.C. enacted same-day voter registration. In the 2018 midterms, states that allowed same-day voter registration saw a 7% increase in voter turnout compared to states that did not.
Currently, the only state that does not require any form of voter registration is North Dakota.
Felon disenfranchisement is another form of voter suppression found in 47 states. Some states are working to get rid of it, but this form of suppression follows felons for decades after they have served their sentence and are fully functioning members of society. These individuals cannot perform their simplest civic duty of voting because the government prohibits it.
A study from the Sentencing Project, an organization working to change the U.S. criminal justice system, reported in 2020 that 17 states disenfranchise individuals during a prison sentence; four states during prison and parole; 16 states while in prison, serving parole and on probation, and 11 states while an individual completes a prison sentence, is on parole or probation and even post-sentence. In the U.S. approximately six million people are not able to vote due to a conviction.
Limited ballot boxes and a lack of drop-off locations are another form of voter suppression. MSN News reported the Texas Supreme Court ruled each county would be limited to one mail-in ballot drop-off location.
“Among the counties hit hardest by the rule will be Harris County, home to Houston,” MSN News reported. “[This ruling] had dropped its 12 drop-off spots to just one.”
Harris County consists of 1,777 square miles and has a single ballot drop-off site. Rhode Island has a similar square mileage and has 39 ballot drop-off sites. Harris residents may need to travel up to 47 miles to drop off their ballot.
There has been a widespread delay in the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which may have exceedingly detrimental effects on the 2020 elections. USA Today reported in August that the postal service has been losing money for years, but the pandemic worsened financial woes. USPS lacks the additional funding it needs to properly carry out the election.
The Washington Post reported that postal delays affect mail-in ballots, lessening the appropriate time needed to send them back and be counted. A mail service that cannot deliver ballots in time for the election indicates a federal government complicit in suppressing the voice of thousands through an unwillingness to provide crucial funding.
Many polling locations have limited hours and are placed in inconvenient areas, which makes it difficult for voters to reach the polls. For parents who have children and need child care, lines that go on for hours are not feasible. Limited polling hours in places such as Indiana and Kentucky, where polls close at 6 p.m. put a strain on working-class citizens who work 9 to 5 jobs and cannot reach a polling place before closing.
Gerrymandering is another form of voter suppression. It is the redrawing of district lines to either disperse or concentrate political representation. Gerrymandering amplifies or silences voters and disadvantages the voices of all.
Why is voter suppression such a bad thing? Well, more people will vote if it is easier to, and more votes equal a more representative democracy.