How does voter suppression work today?
Voter suppression is not just a problem of the past. The methods have changed, but the intent remains the same. Let’s learn more about some of the forms voter suppression takes today.
Many states require voters to show some sort of ID before voting and some require photo ID. Sounds reasonable, right?
Voter ID is a solution in search of a problem. It would only prevent fraud that is already vanishingly rare, and therefore burdens otherwise-eligible voters unnecessarily.
One problem is that not every eligible voter has a driver’s license or passport, and obtaining it often requires time, money, and documents the person might not have.
Supporters will often cite other things you commonly have to show ID in order to do, like board an airplane or see an R-rated movie. You don’t have a constitutional right to see an R-rated movie, though!
Often these requirements seem specifically targeted at people who are more likely to vote for Democrats. The sorts of people who are most likely to lack photo ID are students, city-dwellers, the poor, and BIPOC.
For example, when Texas’ voter ID law—introduced and supported by Republicans— originally came into effect in 2013, an ID issued by the University of Texas wasn’t acceptable while a gun license was.
Make sure you are aware of the law in your state!
For more on the myth of voter impersonation fraud, check out our story entitled “Voter Fraud?”.
Ensuring that a state’s voter rolls—its list of registered voters—are accurate is both important and legitimate. However, when maintenance is done sloppily or in bad faith eligible voters can be removed. This is often called a “voter purge”.
JUDITH E BELL
Voter roll maintenance is usually done for legitimate purposes, like removing the names of people who have died or moved outside the state. Done well, it improves administration and can keep wait times low.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, sloppy and bad faith voter purges are happening more often now than a decade ago, especially in states that used to be subject to federal approval under the Voting Rights Act.
Purges often use “voter caging” – using returned or undeliverable mail to identify voters who might not reside at their registered address. Caging is notoriously unreliable and can easily lead to eligible voters being purged.
Over half of states use an interstate database called “Crosscheck” to identify potential purge candidates, which matches voters based only on first and last names and birthdates. This leads to huge rates of false positives, especially among non-white populations who are much more likely to share common last names. Shared birthdays are also much more common than you’d think.
Since the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states with a history of racist voting laws have closed over 1,000 polling places. As of 2019, there were six counties in Georgia that had one polling place each.
Limiting the number of polling places in a community makes it harder for people to physically get to the polls and can lead to longer lines and wait times measured in hours. This can naturally lead to lower turnout.
This year, there are similar fights brewing over ballot dropboxes—especially in states that are doing widespread vote-by-mail for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and the U.S. Postal Service.
While the lynching epidemic of the Jim Crow South is mostly a thing of the past, voter intimidation still happens and can take forms other than direct threats of violence.
Behavior of this sort ranges from asking voters for ID when it isn’t required (as seen in this billboard from Southbridge, MA in 2011), to people posing as poll workers, to, yes, threats of violence.
Intimidation of this sort is sometimes organized at the highest levels, and we very well could see more of it in 2020.
In 1982, the national committees of the Democratic and Republican parties entered into a legal “consent decree” (a judge-supervised settlement agreement after a lawsuit). The GOP agreed to stop their practice of trying to prevent Black people from voting through mailings that contained inaccurate claims of penalties for “illegal voting” and by posting armed, off-duty law enforcement officers at polling places in Black neighborhoods on Election Day.
A federal judge ended that consent decree in 2018. Some high-level Republican officials have urged the party to continue to avoid the sort of behavior that was covered by the consent decree. President Trump, on the other hand, has actively encouraged it by making false claims about rampant “voter fraud” in “certain areas.”
All of that just scratches the surface. Angry? You should be. So what can we do about it? How do we fight back against those who would prevent us from exercising our basic human right to vote?
Before voting starts, you can contact your state and federal representatives and demand support for legislation that would ensure all eligible voters are able to vote safely and easily.
If you vote in-person and see a problem, report it to the poll workers. You should also report any incidents to non-partisan poll monitors on site and to the Election Protection hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE
Finally, do not leave your polling place without voting. Even if your eligibility is challenged or disputed, you have the right to request and cast a provisional ballot and prove your eligibility later.
You can find and contact your federal, state, and local elected officials here.
Learn more about H.R. 4, the House bill that would reauthorize the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were ruled unconstitutional in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.
HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver explains voter suppression in his signature informative and entertaining manner (video contains strong language).
The National Conference of State Legislatures has a comprehensive state-by-state guide to voter ID laws. Make sure you know the requirements in your state and have the proper documents well in advance of election day!
For more on how legitimate voter registration maintenance becomes a voter purge, check out this video from Vox and this comprehensive report from the Brennan Center for Justice.
The probability that two individuals in a group of people share the same birthday is a lot higher than you might think! Scientific American explains the “Birthday Paradox.”
UC Irvine School of Law professor Rick Hasen is one of the nation’s leading experts on election law. Here he is on a segment of NPR’s All Things Considered in 2018 on the lifting of the consent decree in the DNC vs. RNC case. His Election Law Blog is indispensable for keeping up on voting rights news, and his new book Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy is a must-read on the topic (available from Yale University Press or wherever books are sold).