Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 brought to a close a period of overt racial discrimination and voter suppression. It also created a seismic shift in the alignment of the two major political parties: The so-called Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats who supported the suppressive Jim Crow laws that were eliminated by the VRA and who opposed any civil rights reforms, left the party and joined with conservative Republicans around the ideas of small government and states’ rights. This alliance formed the basis of the movement that carried Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 and inaugurated a decades-long shift in American legislative and judicial priorities.
Today, a new combination of restrictive standards and requirements keeps voters from exercising their right to vote. Since 2010, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that politicians in 25 states have erected or tried to erect legislative and administrative barriers to citizens seeking to vote. Republicans controlled the legislative process in 21 of those states, including two in which the Republican legislature overrode the veto of a Democratic governor. Democrats in three states voted in support of new barriers, and in one state, the barrier was supported via a ballot initiative. These barriers have included strict voter ID laws, laws that make it harder to register and remain registered, voter purges, polling place closures, and a shortage of functioning voting machines and other equipment used on Election Day.
In 2013, after almost 50 years, the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act and eliminated federal oversight of state and local jurisdictions with a prior history of discriminatory behavior. The Court’s ruling opened the door to a new wave of voting changes that evidence suggests mostly targets lower income voters, particularly in African American and Hispanic communities. The changes were often made by design, but sometimes were the result of a failure to recognize the racism and classism inherent in seemingly benign decisions.
Proponents of these new legal barriers to voting have justified the measures by citing concerns of voter fraud. While preventing fraud and ensuring the integrity of the voting process is a worthwhile goal, there is little evidence of fraud — certainly not enough to support the kind of restrictive and sweeping measures used in recent years.
Concerns about voter fraud should not be ignored, but it is nonetheless important to recognize that the extreme measures implemented to defend against fraud may be an overreaction at best, and intentional voter suppression at worst. The following sections illustrate the diversity of tactics in use; this list may not be comprehensive.
Strict Voter ID Laws
Increasingly strict voter ID laws have been on the rise since 2000, with the biggest shift occurring in 2006 following the release of a controversial report from the Commission on Federal Election Reform that recommended that all states require voters to have photo IDs. Laws requiring voters to show identification at the polls fall into four categories, seen in the graph below. Some states require voters to show specific forms of ID with a photo (“photo”), while others will also accept non-photo alternatives like bank statements (“non-photo”).
Provisional ballots — ballots that are provided when there’s uncertainty about a voter’s eligibility or identity, and that are used to ensure voters are not denied the right to vote as a result of administrative issues or missing documentation — can also be subject to voter ID laws. In the graph below, “strict” states require that voters take steps after Election Day for their provisional ballot to count, such as returning to an election office with an ID within several days. This can be challenging to low-wage, hourly workers. “Non-strict” states do not necessarily require such actions, instead allowing election clerks to determine voter eligibility via additional verification procedures.
As of 2020, six states — Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia — have strict photo ID laws. An additional three have strict non-photo laws, twelve have non-strict photo laws, and fourteen have non-strict non-photo laws. The remainder, and the District of Columbia, usually use signature verification or other forms of identity checks.
Voter ID laws should ensure the integrity of our elections by seeking a balance between preventing voter fraud and making sure that each citizen gets an equal opportunity to cast their vote. Initial evidence suggests that balance has not been struck.
For example, in 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law, explaining that its provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and reporting that it “bears the mark of intentional discrimination.”
In another instance, a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggested that between 9,000 and 14,000 registered voters in Dane and Milwaukee Counties did not vote in the 2016 presidential election because of the state’s voter ID law. The study’s authors declined to extrapolate the data to determine a statewide estimate, citing a lack of information regarding the other 70 counties in the state. Notably, candidate Trump won Wisconsin by less than 23,000 votes.
Election officials also have a responsibility to keep voter rolls up to date. Normally, this means removing people who have died, moved, or otherwise become ineligible to cast a ballot.
In recent years, this process has accelerated, raising concerns that it is being used to remove eligible voters from the rolls. For example, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, between 2014 and 2016, 4 million more names were removed from voter rolls than were removed between 2006 and 2008, significantly more than would have been expected given population growth and growth in registered voters. Removing potential voters from voter rolls disenfranchises them if they are not aware that they have been removed and show up to vote on Election Day.
In at least nine states, voter purges employ an easily manipulated “use it or lose it” law. The law, originally designed to identify and remove from voter lists those people who have died or moved, has been used in recent years to remove still-breathing, in-state residents who did not vote in prior elections. A report by American Public Media estimates that 107,000 eligible voters in Georgia were so removed in 2017 and another 50,000 in Ohio were eliminated in 2015 and 2016. A study from the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that states formerly covered by Section 5 of the VRA, which until being limited by the Supreme Court in 2013 required some states with histories of racial discrimination to gain federal clearance before making changes to voting laws, are purging registered voters more aggressively than other states. How many purged voters are still eligible to vote was not determined by the report.
One of the more infamous cases of purging occurred in Florida well before the Shelby decision on the VRA. During the 2000 presidential election, Florida did not permit ex-felons to vote. Consequently, 58,000 names were purged prior to the election because they were identified as ex-felons. The election decision between Al Gore and George W. Bush was contested for other reasons, and Bush ultimately won the race in a recount a month after the November election. His margin of victory was 537 votes.
An investigation the following year revealed that “at least 1,100 eligible voters were wrongly purged” before the 2000 election. That estimate may be low, according to the Tampa Bay Times. A court-ordered re-analysis of the list using updated criteria determined that 12,023 people had been wrongly purged— a number that could have changed the outcome of the election had even just 10% voted, and done so in favor of Gore.
Polling Place Closures and Relocations
In a recent report, the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that between 2012 and 2018, jurisdictions previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA closed 1,688 polling places. About 70% of these closures occurred after the 2014 election. Having fewer polling places can confuse voters as to where they can vote, and often generate longer lines and wait times during voting periods. The end result can demoralize voters and reduce turnout.
There are justifiable reasons to reduce the number of polling places that have nothing to do with discrimination — for example, if the voting population of an area decreases considerably, or if state-level budget cuts necessitate belt-tightening across the state government — and consolidations can be executed equitably. Before the Supreme Court changed the VRA, many jurisdictions had to get polling place reductions approved by the federal Justice Department. But the changes to the VRA mean that there is no longer a process to ensure that reductions are disclosed to the public, are conducted with the input of impacted communities, and do not discriminate against voters of color.
Some limited evidence suggests that there is cause for concern:
- Prior to the 2018 midterm elections, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that 10 Georgia counties with large Black populations closed polling places based on the recommendation of an election consultant.
- In Dodge City, Kansas, which has a large Hispanic population, the city’s only polling place was moved outside the city limits in 2018. Even before 2018, access to the polls in Dodge City was limited by sheer volume. The one polling location served 13,000 registered voters, whereas the average number of voters per polling location in Kansas is 1,200.
- In 2016, North Carolina reduced the number of early polling places by 158 in 40 counties with large Black communities
- A VICE News investigation found that jurisdictions previously subject to the VRA shut down, on average, 20% more polling places in the years following the Shelby decision, when they were no longer subject to federal oversight.