The History of Voter Suppression, Is it Really History?

March 2024

Post Civil War Voter Suppression

Voter suppression has been practiced in the United States since at least the end of Reconstruction (1865–77). The Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) amendments to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteed U.S. citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to African Americans; specifically prohibited restricting or denying the right to vote on the basis of race; criminalized the terrorist activities of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan; and authorized the use of federal troops to protect polling stations and to put down white supremacist violence. Relying on federal protection, African American voters elected hundreds of Black state representatives and 16 Black U.S. representatives and senators. By 1870 nearly all of the former Confederate states were controlled by the Republican Party.

As federal troops left, newly Democratic-controlled Southern states passed laws and adopted state-constitutional amendments that effectively disenfranchised almost all African American voters in the South and imposed a rigid system of racial segregation there, Jim Crow, that would last until the mid-20th century.

Early tactics of voter suppression aimed at African Americans continued to be used through the first half of the 20th century. After Reconstruction, African Americans were prevented from voting (or from registering to vote) through intimidation, violence, poll taxesliteracy or comprehension tests (which were not applied to whites), “good character” tests, grandfather clauses (which in their original form restricted voting rights to the [male] descendants of persons who were eligible to vote prior to 1866 or 1867), whites-only primary elections, and outright fraud committed by white election officials. Poll taxes were eventually made unconstitutional in federal elections by the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1964) and in state and local elections by the Supreme Court in 1966. The practice of applying literacy tests to all Black voters, and only to them, was banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and literacy tests in general were suspended for certain jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. The Supreme Court struck down grandfather clauses in 1915 and whites-only primaries in 1944.

Modern Day Voter Suppression and the Impact on Black Communities

One would think that today, these forms of voter suppression would be history, but they are not. Voter suppression impacts black Americans, older Americans and low-income Americans at alarming levels.

The right to vote is a fundamental pillar of American democracy, but countless Americans face barriers to voting ahead of the next election. Here are some important facts to know about voter suppression in the United States.

Widespread voter fraud is a myth perpetrated to suppress American voters.

In the last presidential election, there were unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud. Studies show, however, that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in the United States. For example, a nationwide study conducted in 2012 at Arizona State University identified a mere 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud between 2000 and 2012. A follow-up study in 2016 looking for illegal voting in five states where politicians had raised concerns over fraudulent voting found zero successful prosecutions for voter impersonation. Furthermore, a Dartmouth College study found no evidence of voter fraud in the 2016 election.

People of color in states with a history of voting discrimination had fewer places to vote in 2016.

A Leadership Conference Education Fund study found that states with a history of voting discrimination—which until 2013 had to submit changes to their election laws to the federal government for approval before going into effect—operated 868 fewer polling places on Election Day in 2016. Voters in North Carolina faced mass poll closures during the 2016 election: In 40 counties with large black communities, citizens had 158 fewer early polling places where they could cast their votes. Reducing the number of polling places can lead to longer lines and wait times. During the first week of early voting in North Carolina, African American voter participation had declined by 16 percent when compared with the previous presidential election.

On average, African American voters are required to wait in line for twice as long as white voters.

Long lines are problematic, most notably for low-income people and people of color, who are less likely to have flexible employment and child care options that allow them to wait in line for hours at a time. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that, on average, Hispanic voters spend one and a half times as long in line than their white counterparts. African Americans spend nearly twice as long in line to vote. A Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report estimated that “long lines deterred at least 730,000 Americans from voting in November 2012.”

Strict voter ID laws disproportionately burden voters of color.

In recent years, multiple states have adopted strict voter ID laws. These laws require citizens to provide specific types of identification while excluding others. For example, Texas adopted a law allowing concealed weapons permits as an acceptable form of identification for voting while denying voters using student IDs. In 2016, a federal judge ruled that policymakers in Texas intended to discriminate against African American and Hispanic voters when they enacted the law. Despite this action, many strict voter ID laws remain. These laws place a disproportionate burden on people of color. In Indiana, for example, one study found that white citizens were 11.5 percentage points more likely than black citizens to have the accepted credentials to vote.

Purging voter rolls unduly targets people of color.

Under the guise of preventing illegal voting, several states have removed names from voter registration lists. Illegal purging disproportionately targets communities of color. In 2012, Florida’s governor and secretary of state compiled lists with limited and often outdated citizenship information of more than 180,000 people suspected of being noncitizens and threatened to remove these individuals from the voter rolls. Approximately 87 percent of those whose eligibility was questioned were people of color. Furthermore, during the 2016 presidential primary in New York, Hispanic voters were disproportionately removed from lists in a purge that affected more than 120,000 people.

The strength of American democracy depends on the ability of citizens to express their fundamental right to vote. As we approach presidential elections this November, learn more about voter suppression in your polling area and consider helping others get out to vote.

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