While modern voting is a free right exercised by many U.S. citizens each election cycle, for most of our nation’s history, it was a privilege. Only since 1965 had all men and women of color had the right to vote upon the time the Voting Rights Act was signed into law and prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. Although the landmark legislation’s goal was to be proactive on expanding civil protections, methods of disenfranchisement — the deprivation of or burdening on the right to vote — are still rampant in our country’s electoral system.
There are a number of tactics employed to suppress votes from specific groups in the United States. Remaining actively aware of these dangers can keep your vote — and democracy — safe.
The standards and policies for voting registration vary by each state. While a list of federal requirements must be met, such as maintaining U.S. citizenship status, many rules are left for the state of residency to decide. For example, California permits early voting, and along with 37 other states and the District of Columbia, does not require an excuse from a voter being unable to vote on election day. In the state of Oregon, voters are automatically registered and ballots are cast by mail.
One policy of particular controversy among the states is on the topic of voter ID requirements. While there is evidence of such laws disproportionately disenfranchising minority populations, the negative effects are argued by proponents to not be substantial enough to swing elections.
Thirty-four out of fifty states, many of those with Republican majorities, require some form of identification on the day of voting with the special interest of avoiding fraud. Despite the precautionary principle, critics of the rule argue that it creates an additional barrier to voting as many citizens do not carry government-issued photo identification. An aggressive opponent to the ID requirement, the ACLU argues that such policies specifically target Black voters and decrease overall turnout.
Not only are there barriers to voting on the day of election, but plans that may affect the impact of the vote were possibly made months to years in advance. How primary and general election votes are tallied in the U.S. are counted at the district level. Depending on how the districts are drawn in relation to the population’s demographic can create rather predictable electoral outcomes.
With the issue determined as often too “political” for the Supreme Court to step in, each state decides for itself on how district lines are drawn. Several rules are set in place in order to prevent outstanding partisanship. In twenty-two states, commissions often take part in the process and some states require that districts not be shaped obscurely in order to maintain similar communities in the same vicinity.
Exactly how and where to vote can sometimes be a tricky process; and personal knowledge on the matter can definitely influence whether or not your vote gets counted. In 2018, several days before the election, The New York Times published an article on the ways misinformation is detrimentally dispersed to voters. One reported red herring are text messages that notify recipients that hours or locations have changed, new forms of voter ID are required, or that your voter registration is not valid. Notifications stemming from both Republican and Democrat organizations attempt to dissuade voters with false information and mask as legitimate sources such as claiming they are texts sent from President Trump himself.
Absentee ballots, also known as “mail-in” voting or voting “by-mail”, are operated ahead of Election Day. All states will mail a ballot to voters once specific requirements are met (depending on the state) and the voter may return the ballot in person or via mail. While such accommodations are made to increase voter turnout and decrease costs, they can be limited by state laws. The state of Mississippi, for example, does not permit early voting and has a strict thirty-day registration period before the day of elections. The state is subsequently ranked as one of the most difficult states to vote in.
A form of voter purging, voter caging refers to the general practice of strategically challenging the validity of a voter’s registration based on a voting law technicality. In practice, partisan organizations may send mass direct mailings to foreclosed housing addresses or via non forwardable mail. Lists of voters are then compiled from the returned mail in order to challenge their right to vote based on proof of invalid addresses.
In response to these caging lists, Congress has recognized the mobility of voters. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 therefore regulates the conditions under which a state may purge a registered voter based only on undelivered mail. Outgoing mail with the purpose to screen voters must be forwardable, with a notice to the voter to return an enclosed postage-paid card.
If we want democracy to work for us, the correct answer is everyone. However, certain groups are often systematically targeted, sometimes in order to strike down strong bases for certain platforms. Whether or not these policies are intentional or exist as natural design flaws, the result of these practices induce racial bias in electoral outcomes.
An infamous example of disenfranchisement is during the Jim Crow era, a time beginning in the Reconstruction Period where many Black votes were suppressed based on frivolous legal technicalities. Several states had established laws that tacitly barred African-Americans from voting. Laws issued by states at the time included:
- Literacy Tests: Illiterate and uneducated citizens were often kept from the polls. Moreover, these tests were nearly impossible to pass. Test officials would arbitrarily fail Black test-takers despite similar literacy scores as those white.
- Property Tests: The ownership of property was a requirement in several states where poor, landless voters — many of whom were Black — were therefore deemed ineligible.
- The Grandfather Clause: Anyone was allowed to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had voted before 1867. However, rarely any black people had voted at the time and thus the grandfather clause was a law designed for white legacies.
Not only is disenfranchisement observed on the basis of race, but as well as gender, disability status, and felony status. Depending on an individual’s unique political and social identity, the right to vote was apparently a right to be granted and still may be the case today.
Voter disenfranchisement can sometimes seem to be a thing of the past, but several instances of election debacles had occurred in the early 2000s where thousands of votes had been wrongly suppressed as a result. On Election Day 2008, numerous states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida experienced one form or another of voter purging, intimidation tactics, or misleading information on voting. In one case in the state of Colorado, a county clerk had informed students attending Colorado College that they were not eligible to vote at school if their parents claimed them as dependents on their federal tax returns. This, of course, was not the case.
While we may believe that voting procedures have modernized, it may be that new methods of disenfranchisement have adapted and evolved in response.
Despite these dangers, we at Voterly hope to make a change to that by facilitating the access to information that voters have on candidates running for office, so they are better equipped to elect officials that represent their best interests. We also make voting as easy as possible by accurately informing users on their state’s voter laws, requirements and resources leading up to Election Day. With Voterly’s tools to understand the political landscape, we hope to promote civic engagement, increase voter turnout, and empower democracy against disenfranchisement.