Voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting. Voter suppression attempts to reduce the number of eligible voters who might vote against a candidate or proposition.
The United States Constitution did not originally define who was eligible to vote, allowing each state to determine who was eligible.
Our history includes many struggles to expand the right to vote from early days in which most states allowed only white male adult property owners to vote until today when constitutional amendments guarantee equal voting rights regardless of gender or race.
United States history also reflects systematic, on-going attempts to limit the access of targeted groups to the ballot box. Following the Reconstruction Era until the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow laws such as literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and religious tests were some of the state and local laws used to deny immigrants (including legal and newly naturalized citizens), poor people, non-white citizens, Native Americans and any other locally “undesirable” groups from exercising voting rights guaranteed under the constitution.
Most of these voter suppression tactics were made illegal after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans have renewed their systematic efforts to suppress the votes of citizens most likely to vote for Democrats.
In North Carolina, for example, Republican lawmakers requested data on various voting practices, broken down by race. They then passed laws that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans. Among other things, they cut back on early voting. Later, the North Carolina GOP sent out a press release celebrating the decline in early voting by African Americans.
Federal judges have overturned Republican-backed voting restrictions in several states on the grounds that they were intentionally discriminatory. In Texas, a voter ID law requiring a driver’s license, passport, military identification or gun permit was repeatedly found to be intentionally discriminatory. A similar ID law in North Dakota, which would have disenfranchised large numbers of Native Americans, was also overturned.
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.”
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.
Other voter suppression measures include shutting down Department of Motor Vehicles offices in minority neighborhoods, making it more difficult for residents to obtain voter IDs; shutting down polling places in minority neighborhoods; systematically depriving precincts in minority neighborhoods of the resources they need to operate efficiently, such as poll workers and voting machines; limiting early voting; purging voters from the rolls shortly before an election (in 2008 more than 98,000 Georgia voters were purged by “computer mismatch”); and spreading disinformation about voting procedures.
Often, voter fraud is cited as a justification for voter suppression laws. 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. Only one person, a Republican voter, was convicted.
In May 2017, Donald Trump established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, purportedly for the purpose of preventing voter fraud, claiming falsely that millions of illegal immigrants had voted in the 2016 United States presidential election, costing him the popular vote.
After failing to find evidence of voter fraud or improper registration, the commission was disbanded in January. Democrats believe the commission was established to promote voter suppression.