Voter suppression is growing rapidly in America today.
Over half of states now have voter ID requirements more stringent than that required for first time voters in federal elections.
Several states are clamping down on voter registration drives or are considering proof of citizenship requirements.
Most recently, the Supreme Court upheld a major new barrier to voting, Indiana’s photo ID requirement, a tool that right wing forces are already gearing up to promote in more states to strengthen their
are joined by a range of other voter suppression techniques – such as
caging voters and passing out deceptive fliers about voting
requirements – that are being perpetrated at an increasing scale.
Voter ID laws alone have the ability to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands and possibly more voters throughout the country.
Fighting them and other voter suppression initiatives should be a top priority of all progressives.
we outline the most immediate current voter suppression threats, and
place them in the historical context of a continuous, long-term
campaign to suppress the vote in minority communities.
Voter Suppression in American History
Voter suppression has been a part of the American political system since the passage of the 15th Amendment granting all men the right to vote.
Poll taxes, literacy tests and a host of obstacles were used to almost
completely disenfranchise the black population in many states.
era of voter suppression began during the civil rights era as a
response to the weakening of Jim Crow and the re-enfranchisement of
Since that time, spurred
by an electoral strategy of making racial appeals to white voters, the
right wing has used two often combined strategies for suppressing the
vote of minorities and other groups likely to support their opponents
so called ballot security campaigns, and intimidation and deception of voters.
in the late 1950s, a new era of rightwing operatives emerged engaging
in a series of ballot security campaigns which have used the fear of
voter fraud to challenge, harass and intimidate voters in heavily
minority precincts across the country.
programs combine baseless charges of voter fraud, presented to the
media as fact, with large and sophisticated operations to challenge the
eligibility of thousands of voters, scare minority communities with
threats of prosecution for violating voting laws, and placing
intimidating observers in the polls.
example, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is still under a
consent decree issued in 1981 as a result of a ballot security
operation that included an attempt to disenfranchise 45,000 mostly
African American voters by having them removed from the rolls, posters
placed in predominantly African American neighborhoods that issued a
warning regarding election law violations and read, This area is being
patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force, and posting
off-duty police officers at targeted poll sites.
That decree was strengthened five years later when the RNC was caught again engaging in a caging operation in Louisiana.
was hardly alone in these activities and a host of individual campaigns
and private groups have become prominent organizers of ballot security
Efforts to Suppress the Vote are Strengthening and Diversifying
Traditional voter suppression efforts have been reinvigorated and
broadened to include other tactics such as voter ID requirements,
registration drive restrictions, and allocating insufficient resources
to precincts with a high concentration of minority voters.
For the first time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, America is on a path of restricting the franchise.
voter ID requirements have received much of the attention, 2004 saw the
most well coordinated voter suppression campaign in our nations
At the same time, independent misinformation and voter intimidation campaigns continue to sprout up in every election.
we have also seen instances where prosecutors and police intimidate
minority voters by either aggressively questioning them or prosecuting
them for minor, technical violations of voting laws.
In Texas the Attorney General just completed a two year investigation of voter fraud
that resulted in just 26 prosecutions of minor violations, none
coordinated and none that could have had any chance of swinging an
All of the defendants were Democrats and almost all were black or Hispanic.
In 18 cases involving absentee ballots no votes were illegally cast, but people who assisted voters in mailing
ballots otherwise legally cast were prosecuted.
The intimidating and discriminatory nature of these investigations has resulted in a civil rights lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party.
Federal Enforcement of Voting Rights has Largely Disappeared: The Justice Department has been turning a blind eye to voter suppression since the beginning of George W. Bushs presidency.
Between 2001 and 2006 no voting rights cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters.
of protecting the right to vote against real attacks, the voting rights
division has been obsessively pursuing voter fraud cases against
This came to the fore
with the firing of several US Attorneys who alleged that they had been
forced out for failing to go along with DOJs urging to prosecute cases
with limited evidence.
Voter Suppression Campaigns are a Direct and Immediate Threat to the Progressive Agenda:
The votes being actively suppressed are ones that the right wing has
reason to believe will be cast for candidates who oppose their
policies, and these tactics are used to maintain right wing control
over government even when the people dont support conservative
and scope of these campaigns is increasing and it is not an
exaggeration to say that our democracy is under real and immediate
threat from these practices.
The fundamental right to vote is once again under direct attack and the will of the people is being subverted.
lawmakers should make responding to this attack the highest priority
because it aims to do no less then to steal positions in government in
order to stymie progressive change.
Traditional Suppression Tactics are Alive and Thriving
basic strategies for preventing voters from exercising their franchise
intimidation, deception, and challenging a voters eligibility
through laws designed to facilitate disenfranchisement have been in
continuous use since reconstruction.
They continue to be used with virtual impunity today.
voters takes many forms from videotaping or asking inappropriate
questions of voters in a polling place, to placing heavily armed police
outside poll sites, and distributing threatening flyers announcing the
penalties for voting fraud.
The intention is to make voting actually or apparently risky in order to keep people away from the polls.
Voter intimidation is illegal under federal law, and many states laws as well.
However, most laws are not clear on what constitutes intimidation and there is a need for clearly articulated standards at the state level to make sure that these laws cover all of the techniques used to threaten voters.
In a 2003 Philadelphia mayoral race, hundreds of men with cars and
clipboards that bore official-looking insignias were dispatched to
polling places in predominantly African American neighborhoods.
In a poll conducted after the election, 7 percent of African American voters said they had encountered these men.
In 2004 the Election Protection Hotline received over a thousand complaints of voter intimidation or suppression.
hotline reports that police outside a Cook County, Illinois, polling
place were requesting photo ID and telling voters that if they had been
convicted of a felony they could not vote.
Voter deception involves using disinformation campaigns to prevent targeted populations from voting.
This usually involves publicizing bogus restrictions on who can vote and what the voting procedures are.
some instances the perpetrators prevent registration or make people
believe they arent registered when they are, and in others they use
misinformation to prevent registered voters from going to the polls.
In this years presidential primary a voter mobilization group made
calls to residents of predominantly African American neighborhoods in
several states giving misinformation about voter registration.
Virginia enacted HB 1835 last year, which makes it a class 1 misdemeanor to
communicate false information regarding the date, time, and place of
the election or a voters precinct, polling place, or voter
registration status, intending to impede the voter in the exercise of
his right to vote.
is the practice of sending non-forwardable mail to voters and
challenging the eligibility of every person for whom the mail is
returned as undeliverable.
The mailings are targeted to members of one party and often to minority communities.
existence of undeliverable mail is, of course, no evidence that a voter
isnt eligible and the people engaging in caging know that, but they
disingenuously claim to the media that it represents evidence of large
scale voter fraud.
In many states, because of broad challenge statutes, it is very easy to disenfranchise someone with a challenge.
is by design as these laws were created in the post-civil war period
specifically to allow for ad hoc disenfranchisement of African American
voters. An early challenge statute from Ohio provides a good example of
the explicitly racist intent of the law: It shall be the duty of
judges of elections to challenge any person offering to vote at any
election ¦ having a distinct and visible admixture of African blood¦
Challenge laws remain ubiquitous today and some allow voters
eligibility to be challenged without any personal knowledge that a
voter is ineligible.
At least seven states saw caging operations in the 2004 presidential election.
In 2004 the Ohio State Republican Party challenged over 30,000 voters
prior to election day and recruited 3,600 people to challenge thousands
of voters on election day.
The same year the Florida Republican Party compiled a 1,886 person
caging list that included deployed military personnel registered at a
- Minnesota has passed a law that prohibits generating challenge lists based upon mail sent by a political party that is returned as undeliverable.
Washington has narrowed its challenge statute
significantly, establishing a presumption of eligibility and requiring
clear and convincing evidence that the voter is not in fact eligible,
among other reforms.
The Voter Suppression Toolbox is Expanding
those who would suppress the vote for political advantage have
developed new tools which on their face are neutral election
regulations, much as the poll tax was.
tactics are perhaps more insidious because they have been countenanced
by the courts and have been given an air of legitimacy.
Over the last ten years states have passed dozens of laws requiring identification to vote.
laws have been sold as a solution to voter fraud, yet they have been
specifically designed in most instances not to apply to absentee
balloting, where the small amount of voter fraud that does occur is
most likely to be perpetrated.
partisan purpose of these laws is clear by the fact that they have been
passed with party line votes everywhere they have been enacted.
Missouri this year the legislative leaders made no secret of the fact
that they were rushing through a voter ID bill specifically because
they might not be in power after November.
are not intended to prevent in-person voter fraud, of which there is
almost no evidence, but are truly designed for the simple purpose of
suppressing the vote of groups less likely to have or be able to obtain
the required ID the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and racial and
Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that, in Missouri,
238,000 adults lack the ID required by the proposed photo ID law.
This is over 5% of the states population. In this years presidential primary in Indiana a dozen nuns and unknown numbers of students couldnt vote because they lacked the requisite Indiana or federal government issued photo ID.
Proof of Citizenship:
vanguard of voter identification laws are requirements to provide proof
of citizenship in order to register to vote, and in some instances
every time you vote.
Seizing on fears of
illegal immigration, conservative lawmakers are claiming that citizens
are having their votes diluted by non-citizens.
with other voter ID requirements, the burdens of these laws are real
and fall disproportionately on poor, disabled, elderly and minority
Providing proof of citizenship is more onerous than even obtaining a photo ID.
as with fears of voter fraud generally, there is no evidence that
non-citizens vote in significant numbers anywhere in the country.
In Arizona, the only state that currently has a proof of citizenship
requirement for voter registration, election officials have denied 30,000 registrations and have discarded 4,000 provisional ballots due to the requirement.
Registration Drive Restrictions:
a response to successful efforts by non-partisan and progressive
organizations to register hundreds of thousands of new voters in recent
years, many states are enacting restrictions on voter registration
These laws have
a discriminatory effect as African Americans and members of Spanish
speaking households are twice as likely to be registered through a
voter registration drive than whites or members of English speaking
In Florida strict deadlines have been established mandating that
completed registration forms must be delivered to election officials
within days of being filled out.
Failure to comply with the deadlines makes someone liable for heavy fines.
This recently led the League of Women Voters of Florida to briefly suspend voter registration activities.
The law is currently not being enforced while a lawsuit between the League and the state is resolved.
In Ohio voting rights groups won a lawsuit that struck down
voter registration law provisions that required registration drive
workers to register and to undergo training, to list detailed
information on each registration form they help with and for every
gatherer to turn in forms in person, not through an organizer¦”
Lack of Poll Site Resources:
recent elections it has not been rare to see long lines at some polling
places while neighboring precincts accommodate all voters easily.
lines are the result of choices in how many voting machines or ballots
are distributed to each polling place, and these choices sometimes have
the effect of disproportionately reducing the vote in minority or low
In Ohio in 2004 many voters in heavily African American urban counties experienced lines that took five or more hours to stand through, while voters in neighboring, predominantly white suburban counties waited for a fraction as long.
Poll Locations: Another long standing tactic for voter suppression involves the placement of poll sites.
reducing the number of sites in a community or placing sites in
difficult to access locations can help suppress the vote of disfavored
This is an especially prevalent
tactic in college towns where local leaders want to discourage the
participation of students in local elections.
Just this February over a thousand students marched six miles from Prairie View A&M University to the closest early voting site.
years earlier a judge had found the students not to satisfy residency
requirements for voting, which decision was eventually overturned.
Since the end of Jim Crow and the
re-enfranchisement of African Americans there has been an unceasing
attempt to prevent certain classes of people from voting.
the banner of ballot security and the prevention of voter fraud,
these campaigns have instead sought to undermine the democratic process.
The tools to fight this vote suppression, as detailed above, are clear:
Enact Voter Protection laws to stop voter intimidation and deception.
Stop “caging” with laws that prohibits generating challenge lists based upon mail sent that is returned as undeliverable.
Narrow challenge statutes
to create presumption of voter eligibility with clear and convincing
evidence required to prove a voter is not in fact eligible to vote.
Block “voter ID” laws which largely serve to suppress the vote of otherwise eligible voters.
Protect community-based voter registration drives from state intimidation.
The whole toolkit of voter suppression techniques are being deployed as
the rightwing faces an angry and disgusted electorate that is eager to
see fundamental change.
who are fighting for that change and putting themselves forward as an
alternative to the bankrupt right wing must be aware of the present
attacks on our democracy aimed directly at thwarting progressive change.
Without fighting back to ensure fair elections in which everyone can participate the entire progressive agenda is imperiled.
The New Voter Suppression and the Progressive Response
Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Voting Rights Project
Chandler Davidson et al. – Republic Ballot Security Programs: Vote Protection or Minority Vote Suppression Or Both?
Now Will the 2008 Vote be Fair?
American Prospect (April 2008)
The Republican War on Voting
Social Policy (Fall 2007)
History of Partisan Attacks on the Voting Process
Election Protection Shattering the Myth: An Initial Snapshot of Voter Disenfranchisement in the 2004 Elections.
Traditional Suppression Tactics are Alive and Thriving
People for the American Way The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today
Center for Policy Alternatives Voter Protection Act
Project Vote New Barriers to Voting
People for the American Way The New Face of Jim Crow: Voter Suppression in America
Brennan Center for Justice Voter ID
Brennan Center for Justice Policy Brief on Alternatives to Voter ID
Advancement Project Americas Modern Poll Tax: How Structural Disenfranchisement Erodes Democracy
Progressive States Specter of Fraud Helps the Right Wing Shape the Electorate