Voter Suppression in Modern Day America
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
The upcoming presidential election in 2020 coupled with the recent critical examination of the U.S government and police systems has resulted in a more politically charged America than ever. Arguably, minorities and youth across all social classes are spearheading this prevalent push for increased civic engagement. As this call for voting rises, citizens are also forced to analyze the effects of systematic voter suppression on the country’s form of democracy and what that means for the average voter. Voter suppression is defined as “any effort, either legal or illegal, by way of laws, administrative rules, and/or tactics that prevents eligible voters from registering to vote or voting.” Despite the lack of major media attention, voter suppression is more common and obvious than one may believe.
Controversy in Kentucky
The most recently alleged case of voter suppression was called to the attention of the public during the 2020 primary election in Kentucky. On June 23, Kentucky voters in Jefferson County only had one polling place to vote at instead of their typical 200+ sites. Now, what alarmed most activists is the fact that upwards of 45% or roughly 171,753 of Kentucky’s total Black population resides in Jefferson County. While it is crucial to note that this change was mostly due to the state’s newly expanded absentee mail-in voting system and the rise of Covid-19 cases in the area, this does not completely justify the change. Although the Kentucky director of elections claims that the office expects 90% of voters who received an absentee ballot to return those in the mail, it is unclear how many Black voters are included in that statistic. In fact, a study conducted in Florida showed that Black and Latino citizens were 2x more likely than white voters to have their request for an absentee ballot denied. Regardless of any statistic, the polling decision was enough to draw cries of outrage from both voters in Kentucky and activists from outside the state. As expected, on the day of the primary there were wait times around 1.5 hours and extreme traffic in the area around the single polling place in Jefferson county. This issue was serious enough that an elected official petitioned for polling places to be closed at 9 pm instead of the original 6 pm, this request was denied by a judge. Whether or not this entire situation was created to intentionally silence the voices of minority voters is debatable, but the result is clear that citizens of Jefferson county faced easily preventable issues when casting their ballots.
How Voter Suppression is Legal in America
Voter suppression exists legally as a result of faulty and discriminatory legislation employed throughout the United States. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Thirty-six states have identification requirements at the polls. Seven states have strict photo ID laws, under which voters must present one of a limited set of forms of government-issued photo ID to cast a regular ballot – no exceptions.” Although this requirement may not initially present itself as sinister, more than 21 million legal U.S citizens do not have a form of government-issued photo identification. Specifically, “up to 25% of African-American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of whites.” This requirement in 7 states, therefore, reduces voter turnout by tens of thousands of votes effectively muting the voice of mostly minorities, the elderly, disabled, and those in rural areas.
In states like New York and Tennessee, citizens are required to register to vote nearly a month before the election causing significant stress for potential voters. During the 2016 election, 90,000 New York voters were denied their voting rights as a result of missing the 25-day deadline to register. Furthermore, when New Yorkers were asked why they did not vote in the 2016 election more than 145,000 of them said that they had missed the deadline to register. States that require voters to register so far in advance of the election actively prevent tens of thousands of citizens from casting their ballots.
At times voter suppression assumes even more direct forms such as inaccurate voter purges and disenfranchised felons depending on the state. The number of voters being automatically removed from voter rolls in America is dramatically increasing as shown by the 16 million voters purged by states between 2014 and 2016. In Brooklyn, during the 2016 election more than 200,000 voters were improperly purged from the voting rolls by the Board of Elections and in 2013 more than 39,000 Virginians were purged using a database with an error rate as high as 17% in several counties. Whether the purges were conducted to remove felons from voting rolls or those who no longer lived in the state, it is obvious that this practice is in no way foolproof or reliable at all. Faulty voter purges have resulted in a massive amount of votes being disregarded or thrown out which overall taints elections.
Lastly, most states impose restrictions on those with felony convictions when it comes to voting, but due to the varying nature of those laws from state to state potential voters often do not understand their remaining rights. As of 2020 Iowa citizens convicted with felonies are not able to vote ever again. On June 16, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds vowed to change this by creating an executive order that restores voting rights to paroled felons, but this has yet to happen. This law still disproportionately targets Black Americans as shown in Iowa where 1 out of every 4 voting aged Black men are affected by this legislation. In other states such as California and Connecticut, those on parole for a felony conviction are not allowed to vote again resulting in a system that targets minority communities (primarily those with non-violent convictions such as drug possession). Meanwhile 11 states do not automatically restore voting rights to felons resulting in overall confusion and fear in terms of whether or not they can vote. This lack of knowledge combined with the aforementioned strict legislation results in the disenfranchisement of felon voters who are stripped of their constitutional rights.
As political and social tensions in the United States grow every possible voter must make their voice heard in the upcoming elections. Voters must be diligent when recognizing potential forms of voter suppression and understanding their constitutional rights. To view your state’s deadline for voter registration and other necessary information click the link below.