What manifestations of voter suppression occur in the United States and how can we work to eliminate them?

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"-> Vote Here Vote Aquí ->" by myJon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0“-> Vote Here Vote Aquí ->” by myJon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What prompted me to choose this topic?

I first became interested in this topic because of a news story that caught my attention. I had never really been too interested in the news until all of the talk surrounding the 2020 U.S. presidential election. I started to check the news regularly, and I saw a particular story that caught my attention, one about voter suppression. Since I read the article a few months ago I do not recall the exact details, but I remember it was an ABC News article on voter suppression in Georgia. The article really interested me, and I kept the topic in the back of my mind. When this project was announced, I thought it would be a good topic as it was something that I am interested in and is also very relevant today. In addition, I have a bit of background knowledge surrounding my topic, since I had studied the history of voter suppression of African Americans in middle school.

A brief history of voter suppression in the United States…

"Alabama civil rights movement: Selma to Montgomery march, halted at the Edmund Pettus bridge (Tuesday, March 9, 1965)" by Penn State Special Collections Library is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Alabama civil rights movement: Selma to Montgomery march, halted at the Edmund Pettus bridge (Tuesday, March 9, 1965)” by Penn State Special Collections Library is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the Confederates had surrendered and the South was under Union control (Kaczorowski). Throughout the course of the war, many Southern slaves had finally been freed, but Southern whites, as well as Democratic President Andrew Johnson, were not able to accept this change (Foner). Johnson announced a proclamation that the Southern state governments would be created by constitutional conventions. The problem there was that the only ones who could vote on delegates to be sent to these conventions were Southerners “who had received amnesty and those who had been eligible to vote in 1860,” meaning no African Americans (Altman). Consequently, there were many white supremacist state governments who implemented Black Codes, which greatly restricted African American Rights. The ensuing violence and unjust laws towards African Americans caught the attention of both Northerners and Congress, who were appalled by the regressive actions (Kaczorowski). As a result, Congress overruled President Johnson’s veto to pass the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which stated that Southern states must draft new constitutions that give Black people the right to vote. A large number of African Americans in the South resulted in African Americans being elected to Congress, many local offices, and even the Senate (Foner). Unfortunately, this period of relative voting equality was put to an end in the mid-1870s. Southern states decided to shift their focus from the law to intimidation (Foner). White supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, would murder Black people who voted or ran for office, keeping Black people in constant fear. Southern states also implemented literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes that overtly discriminated against African Americans (Altman). Over the next 70 years, things remained the same for the most part in the South, up until the Civil Rights Movement (Altman).

African American civil rights protests abounded throughout the 1950s and 1960s, which culminated in one of the most significant events of the era, Bloody Sunday. A protest on March 7, 1965, was organized to protest the murder of an innocent Black man. When six hundred protestors reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, police attacked with a wide array of weapons, from clubs to whips to tear gas (Altman). As the event had been broadcasted on live TV, it sparked nationwide outrage, resulting in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act enabled “the Justice Department to send in federal examiners to take over voter registration in places where discrimination had occurred” (Altman).

Unfortunately, women have also struggled in order to obtain the right to vote. In the early 1910s, many Western states gave women the right to vote (O’Connor). However, Southern and Eastern states refused to budge. In 1916, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Catt, began to mobilize and organize suffrage groups all over the USA. Meanwhile, Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, organized pickets and hunger strikes. In 1920, the federal government finally gave in, and on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote (O’Connor).

What are current forms of voter suppression in the United States?

Today, three main manifestations of voter suppression include the disproportionate placement of polling places, gerrymandering, and disenfranchisement of felons.

Strategic polling station placements and closures have recently emerged as one of the new main voter suppression tactics. In most occurrences of this issue, polling stations are placed in a way that a high number of voters will vote at one, and a low number will vote at another (“How Could Voter Suppression”). Consequently, one station will have long lines, discouraging people from voting, while the other will have almost no line. Evidence can be seen in Georgia, as Kevin A. Smith documented how during the 2016 general election a Sandy Springs, GA polling place was deserted. Meanwhile, there was an “hourslong wait at the more racially diverse polling location where his wife was voting” (“How Could Voter Suppression”). Furthermore, studies have shown that in that same election, as well as the Georgia gubernatorial election two years later, Black voters had to wait 45% longer than white voters (“How Could Voter Suppression”).

Secondly, gerrymandering has been a negative side effect of the United States’ voting system. “Gerrymander” means “to divide or arrange (a territorial unit) into election districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage” (“Gerrymander”). The U.S.’ congressional voting system consists of congressional districts, where the popular vote of each district decides the corresponding member of the House of Representatives (Ross). This seems logical, but states can tailor the district borders based on their interests (Ross). In North Carolina, a state that usually has close to even distribution of Republican and Democratic voters, “Republicans control 10 of the 13 congressional districts” (Phillips). It may seem absurd, but manipulating district boundaries can change a somewhat even split to an overwhelming 10-3 majority.

The disenfranchisement of felons is another manifestation of current voter suppression. The United States has the highest prison population in the world, and the growth of the number of prison inmates shows no signs of slowing down (Siegel). As of 2011, “forty-eight states ban felons from voting while they are incarcerated, and 35 of these states deny former offenders the right to vote while on parole” (Siegel). In 2012, 5.85 million people were not allowed to vote due to felonies. For context, the 2012 presidential election was decided by a margin of only 2.5 million votes (Shapiro). The laws against felons voting also unevenly affect minorities, largely due to the fact that the criminal justice system targets minorities. 

What efforts have been made to combat these issues?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “create a more perfect union — beyond one person, party, or side” (American Civil Liberties Union). The ACLU works to help fix the most prevalent civil liberties issues going on today, which include voter suppression. They are attempting to secure equal voting opportunities for all through advocacy and publicity for these issues, as well as filing court cases against unjust voting laws. Regarding gerrymandering, the ACLU directly works to ensure that when redistricting takes place, it is done fairly, taking into account population size and demographics (American Civil Liberties Union) However, although the ACLU is doing excellent work in pushing for equal voting opportunities, they cannot do it alone. Public advocacy and making sure the issue of voter suppression is well known are good first steps, but a problem this large needs change in basic U.S. laws in order to be bettered. 

How can we improve on these efforts and work towards eliminating voter suppression on a macro level?

A solution that specifically addresses the act of gerrymandering could be the elimination of the U.S.’ electoral districting system, and the switch to proportional representation. With proportional representation, the percentage of votes for a certain party determines the number of delegates for that party. Much of the rest of the world rely on this system, so it has been tried and true.

Secondly, a possible solution to the uneven placement of polling places could be using algorithms to decide where to place the stations. Having a computer evenly distribute the polling stations based on the population of certain areas would ideally lead to every station having the same number of voters, and less time spent waiting in line overall, as the distribution of time is ideally equal.

Lastly, a more basic solution to the problem of felony disenfranchisement would be to simply enfranchise felons. This would have mutual benefit, as it would practically eliminate voter suppression of felons, but it could also give felons more respect for the political and social institutions of the U.S., potentially decreasing crime rates in former inmates. (Siegel).

What can you do to make a difference in the fight against voter suppression?

By Sage Roy-Burman

Share your story:

Please share your responses in the comments section below:

  1. Have you ever seen or personally experienced forms of voter suppression? If so, in what way?
  2. What have you done in an effort to counter voter suppression?
  3. Many people still believe that voter suppression is not real, what would you do to enlighten them?

Additional Materials:

Personal Interest Essay

Historical Background Research Essay

Current Problem/Solutions Essay

Works Cited

 

6 Comments

6 comments

  1. Avatar

    I really enjoyed reading your presentation on this very important and currently relevant topic, Sage! You presented the historical information with good clarity and flow. I appreciated your solutions to help improve election integrity. I especially liked your infographic! Hopefully, we can find a way to implement these solutions and work toward less biased, nonpartisan administration of future elections.

  2. Avatar

    My personal experience: Just before this last election pickups full of white people waving American flags and pictures of guns, paraded through the streets of mixed race and minority neighborhoods. As a person of color, I was scared. What would be the risk if I spoke out? How many other prospective voters in the neighborhood, closed their windows, shut their doors, or otherwise turned away. And, like me, how scared would they feel to stand in line at their local polling station, when feeling unsafe in their own city and neighborhood?

    What have I done: I’ve marched with families including people of all colors in demonstrations to raise awareness of disenfranchisement. Unlike the example above, where we can be intimidated as individuals, when we come together, there is strength in numbers. And when we come together representing everyone (Black, White, Brown, you name it– and all genders and orientations), we can be seen in our commonality– we are all people. And for those people fortunate enough to be an American citizen, we should then all have ready access to vote.

    Enlightening others: Know your history. Read the the essay above. All of those events happened in our country. Do you agree or disagree with the response of those in power? Why? If you believe in our country, in 1776 our founders stated that “all men are created equal.” But we did not practice what they preached. It has taken over 200 years to evolve, slowly giving women and blacks an equally counted vote– but those in the greatest power continue to make that vote difficult to cast. Ask yourself: where do you stand, and why?

  3. Avatar

    Well done, you did an extensive research to write this article.

    I have no personal experience regarding voter suppression but am aware of it happening in the country. I was appalled by this June 6 incident in Washington DC.

    Regarding you suggestions for the improvement, I liked the second suggestion most. Because this suggestion is easily doable.

  4. Avatar

    Sage, This is a well researched and very well written article on an important and timely issue being discussed in USA. Congratulations to you! We are aware of the various sorts of voter suppression mostly from media but not personally witnessing any significant voter suppression in our community. Our garage served for several years in the past as a voting place and no acts of suppression or discrimination was ever encountered. Your collection of thoughts put together in a most orderly manner should stand alone to draw a much wider attention to eliminate the gross inequity that still exist in our modern democracy of pride and joy to us. Hope your article gets distributed to others outside the class room through an interested national organization. We are very proud of you! Pradip and Sumitra Roy-Burman

  5. Avatar

    Sage, This is a well researched and very well written article on an important and timely issue being discussed in USA. Congratulations to you! We are aware of the various sorts of voter suppression mostly from media but not personally witnessing any significant voter suppression in our community. Our garage served for several years in the past as a voting place and no acts of suppression or discrimination was ever encountered. Your collection of thoughts put together in a most orderly manner should stand alone to draw a much wider attention to eliminate the gross inequity that still exist in our modern democracy of pride and joy to us. Hope your article gets distributed to others outside the class room through an interested national organization. We are very proud of you! Pradip and Sumitra Roy-Burman

  6. Avatar

    Thank you for presenting on this very important topic! The background history and solutions are informative and well-stated!

    Another way to help is to consider physical transportation to the polls. There are persons who are disabled, elderly, or have other limitations which prevent them from physically getting to the polls. In places where voter suppression limits mail-in or absentee voting, we should consider how we can help them overcome this additional barrier to casting ballots.

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