Voter Suppression: A Tale as Old as Time?

By Kira Darragh

Our democracy works best when all voices are heard. This is a common sentiment during elections, yet voter suppression has been a key part of Unites States politics since its founding. Voting is a fundamental right for all eligible citizens to help shape our democracy. Except, not all voices are being heard. The votes of the disenfranchised, including people of color, students, the elderly, and people with disabilities, are being suppressed.

After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment prohibited states from denying a citizen the right to vote on account of race, but this did not create automatic voting rights for people of color. Poll taxes and literacy tests were implemented to prevent the uneducated and the poor from participating. These requirements were primarily aimed at discriminating against African Americans as part of the Jim Crow laws. While the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests in 1965, suppression tactics continued.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to increase the number of registered voters in areas with a record of discrimination. It required jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to acquire a “preclearance” from the U.S. Attorney General or the District Court of Washington, D.C. before any change in voting practice or procedure was passed. This kept states from enacting discriminatory changes to their voting laws. Then in 2013 the Supreme Court  invalidated main parts of the Act in Shelby County v. Holder. The Court ruled that the formula used to identify areas with discriminatory histories was unconstitutional. This allowed states to implement new voting laws such as Voter ID requirements, closing polling places, and purging voter rolls without federal preclearance. Voter suppression has been a constant throughout U.S. history and was even apparent in recent elections.

After the 2016 election, the White House assembled a commission to investigate voter integrity and fraud but, ultimately, found no evidence to support those claims. Despite the lack of evidence, these claims of fraud continued into the 2020 election, specifically targeting mail-in ballots. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, voters were encouraged to vote by mail rather than going to polling places in person. Although many voters were relying on mail-in voting, President Trump continued his attacks on the voting process. He attempted to deny the United States Postal Service (USPS) the necessary funding in order to block mail-in voting, stating that a lack of funding for the USPS “means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.” It became clear that the President was “sabotaging a basic service that hundreds of millions of people rely upon. . . because he want[ed] to deprive Americans of their fundamental right to vote safely during the most catastrophic public health crisis in over 100 years.”

Voter suppression at polling places was evident across the country as well. President Trump called for his supporters to go to the polls and watch closely to prevent fraud. This led to an “’Army’ of unsanctioned, untrained poll watchers” to descend on polling places across the nation and a lawsuit against the President for voter intimidation. In California, Trump supporters held rallies in the parking lots of popular drive-up ballot boxes. This forced voters to navigate through the crowd to deposit their ballots. Residents reported they could not access the ballot box because they were not comfortable going through the rally. An incident in Albuquerque is under investigation for voter intimidation after a convoy of vehicles honked and yelled at multiple voting sites in the city. In addition, poll workers in Tennessee and Georgia turned away voters wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts and masks. Despite these tactics, the American people made sure their voices were heard. “More votes were cast in the 2020 presidential election than in any other U.S. election in history, and the turnout rate was the highest in more than a century.” While this election was historic, the apparent instances of voter suppression cannot be ignored.

Without the Voting Rights Act in full effect, there is no supervision over state voting laws. The House of Representatives passed a new bill in 2019, now called the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, to restore the Voting Rights Act, but it has not been brought to the floor of the U.S. Senate. Until this act passes in the Senate, states are free to add discriminatory practices to their voting laws that will impact the votes of disenfranchised communities. However, some states are doing their part to make accessing the ballot box easier. For instance, New York passed an Automatic Voter Registration system into law, making it the 19th state to do so. Eligible New Yorkers will be automatically registered to vote when they apply for services at state agencies unless they opt out. Data from across the country report that automatic voter registration increases registration rates between 9-94%. In 2018, Florida approved a measure to restore the voting rights of people with felony convictions who had served their sentences. This reformation restored the right to vote for 1.4 million Floridians. States with initiatives like these are taking a step towards a stronger, more inclusive democracy, but there is still more work to do in the fight to end voter suppression in this country.

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