An Overview of Voter Suppression

Voter Suppression:  An overview r

Voter suppression efforts date back to the Jim Crow era, with poll taxes and literacy tests designed to keep African-Americans from voting.  Today voter suppression is partisan, supported only by Republicans. 

Demographic changes favor Democratic candidates and Republicans are actively engaged in preventing  voters groups from voting because, as Tim Kaine said a few months ago in has rapidly accelerated in the past 7 years.  Before 2011 only two states had strict voter ID laws.  Now dozens do, and about half of all states are now considering implementing dozens of new laws that restrict access to voting. 


--When the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states with a history of suppressing the black vote no longer had to consult the Feds before changing their voting rules.  Predictably, these states jumped to introduce suppression measures, and 17 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first presidential cycle in 2016.


--Republican’s war against voter participation has taken many forms: gerrymandering, limiting early voting, reducing the number of polling places, restricting third-party (e.g. the League of Women Voters) voter registration drives, voter ID laws, voter ‘caging’ (where non-forwardable mail is sent to voters and, if it’s returned because the voter has moved or missed the letter, challenging their right to vote) and the disenfranchisement of 6 million people, disproportionately minority, who have been convicted of felonies.


--Voter ID laws amount to a modern ‘poll tax.’ The cost of ID and the documents needed to obtain one range from $20 for a card to $210 for naturalization papers, not to mention the time and effort, especially in states that offer few places to get ID.


--VS efforts have been helped by Republican-led policies to weaken the electorate economically, undermine a free and fair media, and withhold education and informed discussion.   For example, in 1987, Republican appointees eliminated the FCC’s ‘fairness doctrine’ that required radio and TV stations to air a range of political views.  That made possible the rise of right-wing talk radio and Fox News, which for decades has served the Republican Party as a powerful propaganda tool and helps spread the myth of voter fraud.


--The creation of VS laws and the promotion of Tea Party candidates have been funded by wealthy libertarian individuals like the Koch brothers, who pour money into organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) which drafts these laws, and politicians like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who promotes an anti-tax, anti-regulation and voter suppression agenda.


--Republicans won much of their current power in Congress by increasing their influence at state level.  This helped them win state legislatures which allowed them to redraw districts and create Republican strongholds. In the 2012 congressional elections, Democrats won the majority of votes but Republicans took the majority of seats.


--The Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, to ‘root out voter fraud,’ was created in 2005 by the controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—the man who also championed illegal ‘voter caging’ in his state. Up to 30 states have participated and over 7 million names are on these lists.   The lists are supposed to include full names, last four digits of SS numbers and birth dates but in practice much of this data is missing—names on the list have included supposed double voters with different middle names and no other information.  Common names, like Brown, Jackson and Lee, tend also to be minority names so they are disproportionately affected.  Voters don’t know they’ve been thrown off the rolls until they show up at the polls—but if just a fraction of these people were disenfranchised, the outcome of many races in these states might have been different.  It’s hard to know how many voters were affected in 2016 because states don’t have to release this information.  There is a respected alternative to Crosscheck called the Electronic Registration Information Center, started by the PEW Charitable Trust, which is now used by 20 states and helps clean up voter rolls AND boost registration and turnout. 


Trump has just appointed Kobach to lead his ‘voter integrity’ (eg voter suppression) initiative.


--Despite the hype, Crosscheck has not led to the prosecution of any fraudulent double voters. One of the latest studies disproving the myth of widespread voter fraud pointed out that while under 3 million Americans are registered to vote in two places, a tiny number do and not enough to influence any election. Those who get caught are as likely to be Republican as Democrat.


--Voters who use provisional ballots after finding they are not on the rolls often never get their vote counted after being purged—but they don’t know it


Apart from the flood of proposed new laws, and the appointment of voter suppression champion Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, the Republicans are trying to abolish the Election Assistance Commission, the only federal agency that helps states with election administration.  The EAC, created by Congress after the hanging chad fiasco of 2000, is small and bipartisan with an annual budget of $10 million. It sets national standards for new voting machines and tracks and collects problems with those systems.  Forty-seven states have passed laws requiring them to rely on EAC standards, testing or certification programs for their voting machines.


Secure and reliable voting technology is key to election integrity.  This is a national security issue—much of our voting technology is perilously out of date and there is evidence that Russia tried to hack into our voter registration systems.


In 2016 there were long lines in a number of crucial states, including Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.  Computer failures in Colorado, North Carolina, Wisconsin and elsewhere caused huge delays in casting votes and a reliance on provisional ballots, which are often never counted.


Issues for overseas/absentee voters


Voting by absentee ballot is not simple.  In 2012, some 250,000 absentee ballots of 26.8 million cast were thrown out because voters failed to follow the often- confusing instructions of filling them out and sending them in.  One in six discarded ballots that year was tossed because a signature was deemed to not match those on the registration documents.  Most experts attribute this to handwriting changes, not fraud.


A survey by Democrats Abroad about voting this year showed that of 529 respondents who did not vote, 26 percent didn’t because they never received their requested ballot, and 24 percent didn’t because they missed the voter registration deadline.


Even if you don’t believe voter suppression cost HRC the election, we all must fight it—Republicans wouldn’t be engaged in it if they didn’t think it worked!  We can fight back:


Make sure US citizens overseas register and request their ballots early in 2018 for the midterm elections, using the platform.


Encourage them to get to know their LEO (Local Election Official) to make sure their requests are received and to find out when they’ll receive their ballots.


Encourage them to follow up and ensure their ballots have been received.


Improve outreach to the thousands of U.S. students who come to the UK to study. Make sure they know how to register, vote and follow up.  Consider events to help educate them about voter suppression, the targeting of young voters and how their universities can help.  Create a new generation of activists.


Encourage voters to understand voting rights in their own states. They must contact their MoCs to reject Interstate Crosscheck if their state uses it, encourage more voter registration, preserve the EAC and protest any other suppression efforts. 


AND SPEAK OUT AGAINST THE MYTH OF VOTER FRAUD.  Every time the President tweets about voter fraud, our MoC’s should tweet back about voter suppression.


SUPPORT organizations that are fighting to preserve and expand voting rights: The Brennan Center for Justice, the Verified Voting Foundation, The League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the ACLU, the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus, the Fair Elections Legal Network.  There is also the new organization Let America Vote. 


Support the DNC’s new Voter Protection Unit and the renewed Democratic focus on taking back our states.


Some state-by-state stats:


Wisconsin: In closed Senate Republican Caucus during discussions of voter ID laws, state senators were ‘giddy’ as they spoke explicitly about suppressing minority and student votes.  Scott Walker signed the state’s first voter ID laws in 2011.  A Federal Court held it unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court let it go into effect for the  2016 election. As many as 300,000 voters then lacked proper ID. In 2016, Wisconsin voter turnout was lowest it had been for a presidential election in 20 years.  It’s hard to argue that this was all because of a lack of enthusiasm for HRC.  There were reports of floods of calls from urban Democratic strongholds as voters were turned away for not having proper ID.  In the weeks leading up to the election, DMV offices were caught giving false information to people trying to get voter ID.  Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 30,000 votes.


Michigan participates in Crosscheck. During the Green Party recount, Republicans were out in force in places like Detroit, contesting and preventing election officials from counting a single vote.  Optical scanner machines had recorded 75K blank votes for president.  Sometimes machines fail to count ballots that have been marked.  Detroit officials said that 87 of the city’s optical scanners had broken down during voting.  A record number of precincts in this Democratic stronghold were excluded from the recount process.  A judge called off the recount after three days anyway.  Trump won by 11,000 votes.


Pennsylvania Much was made of the fact that African American turnout was so low in this state.  On Election Day however, half of voter-intimidation  complaints in the country to the national, non-partisan Election Protection coalition came from Pennsylvania, mostly from Democratic areas.  Voters in the Philadelphia area were asked for ID despite the fact that it is not needed in the state.  Pennsylvania also participates in Crosscheck.  Trump won by about 44,000 votes.


These three states, and fewer than 100K votes, gave the election to Trump.


North Carolina: In 2013, the GOP-led state approved a law eliminating same day voter registration, cut early voting, got rid of a program to pre-register high school seniors, etc.  Federal courts struck down most of the law after finding it intended to suppress the black vote ‘with almost surgical precision.’  Republican- controlled county election boards then decided to cut hours and locations.  The third most populous county reduced the number of polling sites in the first week of early voting from 16 to 1.  Early voting is favored by African Americans, and their turnout dropped nearly nine percent.  Counties that cut early voting hours and sites had long lines at the polls—which discourages future voter participation.  Trump won the state by fewer than 200,000 votes.  North Carolina also joined Crosscheck in 2014, even as other states left it.


Florida is one of three states that permanently disenfranchise anyone with a felony conviction.  To get voting rights restored, you have to travel to the state capital and petition the governor. The four years that the moderate Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist was governor, more than 150,000 Floridians had their voting rights restored.  During not-moderate Republican Rick Scott’s first term, fewer than 1,600 people had their rights restored.  One in four black Floridians could not vote this year because of the law.


Texas passed a very strict voter ID law in 2011, estimated to affect over 600,000 people, disproportionately minority and young. (For example, under it you can use a gun license for ID at the polls, but not a student ID!) Eric Holder’s DOJ had joined the legal fight against this law. Under Jeff Sessions, the DOJ decided not to pursue the case that Texas acted with discriminatory intent.  On April 11, a Federal judge ruled for the second time that the law WAS enacted to discriminate against minorities. Texas is expected to appeal the decision.


Virginia’s GOP-controlled legislature passed strict ID laws in 2012.  In one particularly egregious example, a 69-year-old African American woman who moved from North Carolina to Virginia was unable to vote, despite the fact that she brought a North Carolina driver’s license, an expired Virginia DMV card, her birth certificate, bank statement, voter registration card and Social Security card to the polls.


*This is a partial list of sources for these talking points, from which I borrowed facts as well as sometimes language.  It’s not meant to be an original piece of reporting, just a collection of useful facts you can use in conversation and to inspire yourself to act!     

The Brennan Center for Justice