Voter suppression, or the political strategy of blocking access to the ballot, is a phrase we hear about frequently in the news, on social media, and in our conversations about voter accessibility. In this installment of Civics for Change, we’ll explore what voter suppression is, and how it has evolved since the beginning of elections in the United States.
As a recent college graduate, I saw for four years how student populations are impacted by voter suppression. On campus at the University of Louisville (UofL), we weren’t able to acquire permission for an on-campus polling location. This meant that depending on where students were registered to vote, their polling location could’ve been one of many in our city. I know of students who didn’t vote because they didn’t have access to transportation, or didn’t have the time to take away from classes or assignments. Luckily, our state accepts UofL student ID cards as voter identification, but not all students across the nation are afforded that privilege. In addition to lack of polling place accessibility, not accepting student ID as a valid voter ID is another anti-voter tactic in at least 9 states (source: SLSV Coalition Instagram Graphic).
What is voter suppression?
Voter suppression is a strategy of creating obstacles for people attempting to vote or register to vote. There are an immense amount of tactics that are tools of voter suppression, such as voter ID laws, purging voter registration records, and gerrymandering. While there have been many political events that may make it seem like voter suppression is a thing of the past, the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has made it easier yet again for states to disenfranchise voters.
When did voter suppression begin, and how has it adapted throughout American history (in brief)?
As elections in the United States began in the late 1700s, only land-owning white men were able to vote. At the time, not everyone was included in the “We” of “We the People.”
In 1776, New Jersey granted voting rights to all who lived in the state, but then quickly passed a law to disenfranchise all women and Black men. Native Americans, Black Americans, women, and immigrants were all barred from voting. Some places like Maryland also prohibited Jewish people from voting.
After the 15th Amendment was passed to grant Black American men the right to vote, states continued to conjure up ways to disenfranchise Black male voters. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and English-language requirements were utilized to keep marginalized communities out of polling places. With the passage of the 19th Amendment, women were granted voting rights. But in actuality, only white women were able to vote. Many white suffragists condoned and utilized racism to ensure the right to vote for white women, while continuing to disenfranchise Black women. Due to racism in the South, Black women were turned away from the polls and were unable to even register to vote.
The struggle for voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Ku Klux Klan’s murders of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner — three voting rights workers who were attempting to register Black Americans to vote and whose legacies The Andrew Goodman Foundation honors today — contributed to the pressure and urgency to pass the act. It enabled Black women, Indigenous people, and immigrants the right to vote successfully, without discrimination. This law increased the protection of voting accessibility by outlawing the most common anti-voter tactics and allowing for federal oversight of election proceedings in states known for voter suppression until it was gutted by Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.
Voter Suppression Today (Consequences and What’s Next)
In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount and severity of anti-voter tactics being utilized in various states. From January to December of 2021, 19 states effectively passed 34 laws that restrict access to voting. More than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access were introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions. This massive increase in the legalization of voter suppression is no fluke. These are calculated bills with provisions that directly target vulnerable voter populations. Whether states expand voter identification requirements, restrict access to mail-in voting, or bolster voter purging, the truth is that more and more voters are having a harder time making their voice heard through voting.
Voter suppression keeps marginalized communities disenfranchised, and fuels the misleading sentiment that a person’s vote “doesn’t matter.” During my time as an Andrew Goodman Ambassador, I had many conversations with fellow students about why I vote, and why it is so important to continue voting and ensuring that our voices are heard. We are the future of our country, and we must have a say in who represents us. So don’t let suppressive tactics discourage you from voting! Be revolutionary, and don’t allow your voice to be silenced.
If you or someone you know has questions or concerns about voter registration deadlines, requesting absentee or mail-in ballots, or how to vote in-person during early voting or on Election Day, call or text 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) to speak with a trained Election Protection volunteer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eowyn “Wyn” Garfinkle Plymesser (she/her) is the Communications & Development Intern at AGF. Wyn recently graduated from the University of Louisville, where she studied Communication, Jewish Studies, and Peace, Justice, & Conflict Transformation. Wyn served as an Andrew Goodman Ambassador for three years.