July 9, 2017 37th and O

Organizing to Fight Voter Suppression


by Team Marlon: Robby Mulcahy, Rachael Kauss, Ian Harkness, Zara Seidler, and Maria Cornell

*This is one in a series of "Hackathon" projects that Student Strategy Team members put together throughout the course of the 2016-2017 school year.                

Date: April 21, 2017

Voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing people from voting. Although politicians give various justifications for enacting voting restrictions, they often use these laws to disenfranchise political opponents. Both Republicans and Democrats have used suppression tactics over the years for political gain. We argue that any law aiming to keep voters away from the polls infringes on the right to vote. The solution proposed here aims to protect the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of political party.

Voter suppression in the United States can be traced back to the Reconstruction Era, when the the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments allowed Congress to enforce voting protections which had previously been left largely to the discretion of individual states. Unfortunately, after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Enforcement Acts in 1875, Southern states widely enacted legislation to disenfranchise racial minorities through means such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and property-ownership requirements. These practices continued until the mid-twentieth century. In the 1950s, the Civil Rights movement increased pressure on the federal government to address voter suppression and the expansion of voting rights for racial minorities, especially in the South. With public pressure from civil rights activists, culminating in the infamous Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) finally passed Congress in 1965.

The VRA suspended literacy and poll taxes throughout the South, authorized the U.S. attorney general to challenge state election laws, and crucially, required states with a history of voting discrimination to have voting changes approved by the federal government. This preclearance requirement, articulated in Section 5 of the VRA, allowed the federal government to enforce the law. Thanks to federal oversight, the decades after the VRA’s passage saw a decline of the most restrictive election measures (like literacy tests) and a surge in the number of racial minorities registering to vote and seeking political office.

However, opposition to the VRA was vociferous. Opponents argued that the federal government did not have the right to meddle in state election laws. Early legal pushback against the law was largely unsuccessful, so with federal oversight of election laws, states had to come up with more creative ways to disenfranchise their political opponents, usually racial or ethnic minorities, and keep them out of political power. Crackdown on tactics like literacy tests and poll taxes led to the emergence of some of the more creative voting restrictions that are common today.

Proponents of voting rights were dealt a major setback in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down parts of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder. The decision struck down a part of Section 4 of the VRA in a way that functionally hobbled Section 5, ending the obligation of states to obtain preclearance for changes to their voting laws. After the decision, several states—including Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina—implemented voting restrictions that were previously denied preclearance. With the gutting of the VRA, voter suppression has proliferated. Indeed, twenty states have passed new restrictive voting laws since 2010, with 14 states affected by new restrictions for the first time in 2016.These tactics include:

  • Requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote
  • Shutting down voter registration drives
  • Ending same-day registration
  • Curtailing early voting
  • Disenfranchising ex-felons
  • Purging voter rolls
  • Mandating government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot

One of the most prominent suppression tactics in recent years has been voter identification requirements. Supporters of voter ID laws claim that the laws prevent voter fraud, despite limited evidence of fraud that could be stopped with voter identification (a 2014 study found only 31 incidents out of a billion ballots cast from 2000 - 2014). In practice, voter ID laws systematically disenfranchise groups less likely to have a valid photo ID, including minorities, young people, and the poor. A 2017 study on the effects of voter ID laws found that while voter ID laws had little effect on overall turnout, they significantly decreased turnout in minority groups. The study found that in “strict ID” states, Hispanic turnout was 7.1 percentage points lower in general elections and 5.3 percentage points lower in primaries, and that the white-black turnout gap grew from 2.5 percent to 11.6 percent under strict ID laws. While some researchers have questioned these conclusions--collecting reliable data to test the effects of voting restrictions is challenging--in many states, there is plenty of evidence to show the discriminatory intent behind these laws. For example, on April 10, a rigid Texas voter ID law was struck down as discriminatory; the law imposed strict photo requirements that accepted a handgun permit as a valid form of identification but not a student ID card. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, North Carolina passed a bill which required voters to show a state-issued photo ID (or a passport or military ID) at the ballot box, in addition to curtailing early voting and limiting preregistration. Under the law, which would have taken effect in 2016, out-of-
state driver’s licenses would have been accepted only if the voter had registered within the last 90 days, and university photo IDs would not have been accepted. In July 2016, a federal appeals court struck down the law, noting that it “[targeted] African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” and that the legislators had been acting with obvious “discriminatory intent.”

Voter ID is far from the only modern means of voter suppression. In Arizona, lines to vote in the 2016 presidential primary reportedly stretched beyond the 5 hour mark, discouraging some voters from waiting, and when others reached the front of the line, they were denied the opportunity to vote because of mistakes in party registration. Further, the number of polling places in Arizona during the 2016 primaries fell by up to 60% in some counties. The state also suffers from existing legal provisions which restrict the collection of mail-in ballots – which are disproportionately used by Latino voters in the state – and which restrict voters using the federal voter registration form from voting in local elections. Arizona also has poorly publicized voter ID laws, which has resulted in voters being turned away after presenting a federal ID to vote in local elections.

The situation is not so bleak everywhere. Just across the western Arizona border, voters in California experience one of the most open and fair voting climates in the country. This is facilitated by programs started in 2015 that automatically register Californians to vote when they receive a driver’s license and allow for same-day voter registration at polling places. More states should follow California's lead to expand voting access.

Proposed Solutions

Ending voter suppression will require repealing existing legislation designed to restrict voting as well as enacting new legislation protecting voting rights. However, legal change will not happen overnight. While we continue to work toward better voting rights legislation, as organizers, we can take several actions to protect voters across the country. These actions fall into two main categories:

  • Advocating for change to voter suppression laws. In the wake of the 2016 election, progressives are energized to advocate for change. As organizers, we can capitalize on this energy to advocate for the repeal of existing legislation that suppresses voters. Because most voting restrictions are at the state and local level, we should emphasize organizing at the state level by encouraging people to call their state legislators and organize campaigns to elect state legislators who will support voting rights. By tracking voter suppression legislation in each states and educating people around the existence and effects of these laws, we can encourage people to take action on this issue.
  • Educating people around voting requirements and helping them meet these requirements. Unfortunately, the legal situation around voting rights will not change quickly. Current voting restrictions will likely be in place for the 2018 midterm elections and beyond. For this reason, we need to ensure that as many people as possible can and do vote even under restrictive laws. This effort needs to go beyond simple voter registration drives. In states with voter ID laws, we can contact voters well in advance of elections to be sure they have appropriate identification, and if they do not, provide resources and support to help them obtain it. In states that have decreased voting hours, we can better publicize poll hours and undertake campaigns to persuade employers to give their employees adequate time off to vote.

To facilitate this change, we have started to create an organizing guide (found here), for anyone looking to protect voting rights and roll back voting restrictions across the country. It includes a general organizing guide applicable nationwide, and will eventually include guides for individual states, since much of the advocacy on this issue needs to happen at the state level and every state is unique. By distributing this to existing networks already working on this issue, as well as the many progressive activist groups that have emerged in the wake of the 2016 election, we can start to ensure that everyone is able to exercise their right to vote.

The Student Strategy Team of Robby Mulcahy, Rachael Kauss, Ian Harkness, Zara Seidler, and Maria Cornell were advised by Marlon Marshall, Former Director of State Campaigns and Political Engagement, Hillary for America and GU Politics Spring 2017 Fellow.

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