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Voter Suppression in the United States: A Guide

Voter suppression refers to the set of strategies used to influence the outcome of elections by making it very difficult — or even impossible — for specific groups or sections of the population to go to the polls. In the United States, these measures appeared primarily after the extension of the right to vote for former slaves, which came in 1870 with the approval of the 15th amendment.

This guide will provide an overview of what voter suppression is, what it looked like in the past and examples of modern-day voter suppression, including the pertinent issue of voter ID.

The history of voter suppression in the United States

A brief history of voter suppression

Only five years after the 15th amendment, the Democratic Party launched the Mississippi Plan, a political strategy of intimidation to take back a state where the overwhelming majority of former slaves had voted for the Republicans, the party that had supported their emancipation. At the time, paramilitary organisations did not just put economic pressure on new Republican voters, but went as far as whipping and killing political opponents. From 1890, the Democrats in power in Mississippi passed a new constitution that included poll taxes and literacy tests, two measures designed to target the economically disadvantaged and poorly educated black electorate.

Until 1964, this kind of legal restriction was adopted by several states in the Southern United States, along with local and state Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation. Meanwhile, voting violence continued to spread in these states, to the extent that 37-year-old Maceo Snipes was killed in 1946 for voting in the Democratic primary in Georgia. Maceo was the only black man to go to the polls in his county, despite being warned that voting would be 'the last thing he would do'.

Almost twenty years later, the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would outlaw racial electoral discrimination. According to then President Lyndon B. Johnson, the law’s passage was a historic moment that surpassed in importance 'any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield'.

Modern voter suppression

Events started to take a different turn in 2013, shortly after Barack Obama's election, when the US Supreme Court amended the Voting Rights Act to give individual states further rights on election rules. This ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case struck a line through a formula of the US voting system in a landmark decision. The 1965 law required specific states and localities with a history of discrimination against minorities to have any changes cleared by the federal government. In other words, it meant discriminatory voting policies could be blocked before they went into effect and harmed significant numbers of voters.

Former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg strongly opposed the 2013 ruling, stating that abolishing a law because it works "is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you're not getting wet".

Consequently, Republican lawmakers at all levels have made it increasingly difficult for minorities to cast their votes through a wide range of policies. Texas, for example, became the first state to introduce a requirement to show photo ID at the polls - a 'bureaucratic nightmare' for many voters, especially if they are poor, elderly, black or Latino. To date, 35 US states have adopted this measure.

"voter ID laws negatively disadvantage people of colour and marginalised groups"

While there have been some rules about providing some kind of ID when at the voting polls, before 2006 provision of a government-issued photo ID was never a condition for voting. While some argue that these rules reduce electoral fraud, the issues surrounding such rules on photo ID are not to be taken lightly. It has long been proven that voter ID laws negatively disadvantage people of colour and marginalised groups, who are less likely to have the ID’s required by states to vote. Lawsuits have been filed in many of the states that have introduced such rules as they are seen as discriminatory and aim to reduce voting.

Voter suppression in the United States and its impact on marginalised groups

Alternative forms of voter suppression

Another example of voter suppression is found through so-called electoral purges in which voters are removed from electoral rolls in the event of death, change of residence, or for more controversial reasons. The most famous case is that of Ohio which applies the “use-it-or-lose-it rule”: anyone who does not vote for six years in a row and does not respond to a letter sent by the government loses the right to vote. According to The New York Times, of the 235,000 voters identified to be removed from the electoral roll, 20% were going to wrongly lose their right to vote because of administrative errors. Approximately 17 million voters were purged from voting rolls across the United States from 2014 to 2016 and similarly for 2016 to 2018, considerably more than 10 years earlier. States removed about 16 million voters from their rolls, 4 million more than between 2006 and 2008, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Even more sophisticated is the system of gerrymandering, a method used to exploit the redrawing of electoral boundaries, which in the United States takes place every ten years. Gerrymandering remains one of the easiest techniques: it is much more subtle to cut funding to polling stations, leading to their strategic closure in poorer neighbourhoods, or to fail to train poll workers properly and thin out the number of voting machines. This makes voting a challenge for those who do not have a car, and even those who do have a car are forced to wait for hours in line. According to a report by the Brennan Center, black and Latino voters have to wait 45% longer than white voters, and for every hour they wait, the probability of them voting decreases by 1%.

"Black and Latino voters have to wait 45% longer than white voters"

In the first few months following the 2020 presidential election, Republicans in state legislatures across the country introduced at least 250 bills designed to roll back pandemic-related changes to election procedures and to further restrict voting access in ways that would disproportionately affect minorities, young people, and other Democratic-leaning constituencies. Advocates of these new restrictions defended them by citing false claims that Democrats had stolen the 2020 presidential election through voter fraud.

The newly proposed bills include new limits on obtaining or casting mail-in ballots, stricter voter ID requirements, additional restrictions on voter registration, prohibitions of ballot collection and delivery by third parties, reductions in early-voting periods, and legislation that would grant poll watchers greater autonomy and closer access to voters and poll workers, thereby potentially increasing the likelihood of voter intimidation and election interference at polling stations. Some bills even criminalised the act of giving food or water to people waiting for hours in long voting lines.

In July 2021, the Supreme Court upheld two voting laws in Arizona that predated the 2020 election, one limiting third-party ballot collection and another requiring that ballots cast in the wrong precinct be discarded. In its ruling, the Court found that voting laws that disproportionately burden members of racial minority groups do not necessarily violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, despite the act’s prohibition of any “standard, practice, or procedure…which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or colour”.

How Trump's false election fraud claims are increasing voter suppression

Voter suppression: how things stand and what the future holds

While it’s always difficult to give a blanket answer, particularly given the size and variation in opinions and actions across the United States, it is evident that voter suppression is an ever-present problem. Since 2020, 130 bills that would increase the use of law enforcement in the voting process have been introduced across 42 states: 28 of these have been passed in 20 states. Other significant examples include the fact that it is now a crime to distribute food or drinks (including water) to those queuing up to vote in Georgia and Florida’s establishment of an entirely separate law enforcement entity for elections – the office of election crimes and security.

It seems there is a larger ongoing movement, primarily incited by the Republicans, but often stoked up by conspiracy theories and Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent. One such example is the conspiratorial film 2000 Mules which falsely claimed that the 2020 election was rigged by leftist groups using what they call “ballot harvesting”. 19 states have since introduced bills to criminalise ballot collecting after the 2020 making it a crime to hand in an absentee ballot for someone else. In addition, 12 states have changed the status of some election crimes from ‘misdemeanors’ to ‘felonies’ meaning the difference could be prison time and loss of voting rights rather than just fines and probation.

It seems the United States are facing a whole new wave of voter suppression, as Leslie Proll, Senior Director for Voting Rights at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, states: “This criminalization of the vote is a very concerning new form of suppression that certainly has roots in history…But we’ve not seen it in the way that we’re seeing it now.”

Only time will tell what the real effects of such actions will be but with the midterms coming up in early November, it won’t be long before we get a better idea of how things stand for US voters.

Edited by Alex Leggett

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