What Does Voter Suppression Look Like Today?

Americans consider voting to be a right, and not a privilege. Yet for many people, exercising their right to vote was and is not a guarantee.

That’s due to voter suppression, which Sean Morales-Doyles, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, defines as “any attempt to try to stop people who are otherwise eligible to vote from voting.”

Voter suppression has been used to keep marginalized groups marginalized in elections by diminishing their ability to cast a vote.

“But you could actually think of it in slightly broader terms, to include attempts to keep people ineligible that justly should be eligible to vote,” he said.

Illustration of man's arm holding a photo ID. Voter Suppression pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states require a form of ID to vote. Of those, some ask for photo ID, and some don’t.

Voter suppression may not manifest itself the same way it did in the Jim Crow era, when black people were required to pass literacy tests and pay poll taxes to vote. But some states today engage in tactics that voting rights organizations, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, feel are comparable.

“Candidates, campaigns (or) consultants who want to depress (voter) turnout will target those who they know would vote for the other candidate,” said Jan Leighley, professor of American government at American University.

“Most marginalized groups are those with fewer resources — education, income, time — and so any increase in the requirements of voting may affect them more than others with more resources.”

Voter suppression in 2019

Following the Civil War, during the period known as the Reconstruction, injustices against black people continued.

That included denying black people the right to vote by putting up roadblocks. Historian Carol Anderson wrote in her book “One Person, No Vote” that tactics included “poll taxes, literacy tests, limited hours for voting (and) allowing only whites to vote in primary elections,” in addition to “rampant voter intimidation and lynchings,” The Washington Post reported.

Today, voter suppression continues to target marginalized groups, including black voters.

“Making voting and getting registered to vote more difficult in all kinds of ways is sort of the modern way that voter suppression happens most frequently,” Morales-Doyle said. “And now, unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the legal protections lifted.”

Where did this come from?

Modern voter suppression can be traced back to the Civil Rights Movement, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The act prevented states from putting discriminatory restrictions on voting, like the literacy tests and poll taxes. It was a way to reinforce the 15th Amendment, which prevented the federal government from denying a U.S. citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

But, though the tactics have changed, voting is still made difficult for some marginalized people.

Morales-Doyle said modern tactics include “making polling places less accessible to people” and implementing “proof-of-citizenship requirements (and) restrictive voter ID requirements.” Voter ID requirements has been a hot-button issue since the 2016 campaign cycle, and this is exactly why.

Requirements like that “tend to impact vulnerable communities,” Morales-Doyle said.

Some states have introduced laws that place limitations on when, where, and how people can vote. For example, Alabama now requires voters to provide a photo ID to cast their vote.

Ari Berman, journalist for Mother Jones and author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” told NPR these laws are symptoms of a plan to control ballot accessibility.

But Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, said it’s important to be cautious before categorizing something like that as an example of voter suppression.

Outside of controlling the outcome of elections, there are reasons to make election processes more secure.

“Sometimes local officials will do things that on the margins might make it more difficult for people to vote,” he said. “These efforts, I think, are more controversial to call suppression because there are sometimes or often times arguments made… to support them.

“And although they may have the effect of disproportionately affecting African Americans or poor people, those are not the only people who are denied the franchise, and the people who support them often times will argue that the reduction or the limitation of the franchise is worth it for the purposes of making the elections more secure and less prone to fraud.”

Breaking down voter ID laws

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states require a form of ID to vote. Of those, some ask for photo ID, and some don’t.

State laws around IDs are categorized as “strict” or “non-strict.” In states with non-strict ID laws, voters without an ID may still be able to cast a counted ballot without having to take extra steps.

In states with strict laws, voters without IDs are required to vote on a provisional ballot and complete additional requirements in order to have the vote counted.

How do restrictions impact people trying to cast their vote?

“Poorer and less educated individuals, and individuals over the age of 70, or around there, are less likely to have legal documents to prove who they are,” Leighley said. “So to cast a ballot that they are otherwise eligible to cast, these individuals are more likely to have to spend money and time securing an ID — which makes it more likely they will just give up on the idea of voting.”

Proponents of voter ID laws contend they protect against fraudulent voting.

“A voter ID requirement strengthens voters’ rights by protecting the votes of all who vote legally,” economics professor Matthew Rousu wrote for Forbes. “When voter fraud occurs, it dilutes and weakens the votes of all law-abiding voters. One could make a reasonable argument that by not forcing identification and encouraging fraud, you’re violating the promise of one person, one vote.”

Critics of voter ID laws don’t think the benefits outweigh the risks. They argue voter impersonation, which could be addressed by tighter ID requirements at the polls, isn’t a significant problem to begin with.

“From what we can tell from the best research on this, voter impersonation fraud is very rare,” Stewart said. “And so this is where opponents of voter ID laws, myself included, note that while it might be the case that… you might lower the amount of impersonation fraud, you are lowering it from an incredibly low base.

“Any gains you might get by deterring or detecting impersonation fraud are more than balanced off by reducing access to the polls, by people who can’t or don’t want to get a voter ID.”

Rousu wrote that it’s “laughable” to argue voter fraud isn’t a problem.

“Just ask Melowese Richardson, who was sentenced to five years in prison for voting for Obama multiple times in Ohio,” he wrote. “That state has been the focus of several reports of non-citizens and the deceased casting votes. In Texas, officials have pursued 66 people on charges of voter fraud since 2004.”

Looking toward the next election

President Donald Trump has been vocal about his support of voter ID laws.

Regardless of the motives behind them, recent research suggests voter ID laws do have a cooling effect on minority voter turnout.

University of California San Diego researchers Zoltan Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi and Lindsay Nielson published a study that looked at the impact of voter ID laws following several elections.

According to the study, “strict photo identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, blacks and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections.”

The UCSD researchers summarized their findings in The Washington Post and said, “by instituting strict voter ID laws, states can alter the electorate and shift outcomes toward those on the right. Where these laws are enacted, the influence of Democrats and liberals wanes and the power of Republicans grows. Unsurprisingly, these strict ID laws are passed almost exclusively by Republican legislatures.”

As we get closer and closer to the 2020 presidential election, voter suppression is sure to be an issue of concern for everyday citizens and politicians. The impact of voter suppression, and what even counts as voter suppression, isn’t easy to quantify or agree on.

But that doesn’t mean the impact isn’t there, Stewart said.

“Certainly the communities that are targeted feel these laws as being attacks on them,” he said. “Don’t dismiss any of that… It’s more the question of, well, how big are these effects?”

Vanessa Willoughby

Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been published in The Toast, Vice, Broadly, Allure and other publications. She is a fiction editor for the independent publisher Brain Mill Press.