Skip Navigation
Expert Brief

The New Voter Suppression

Over the last decade, states have enacted voter restrictions that disproportionately disenfranchise racial minorities and distort our democracy.

Published: January 16, 2020

On Elec­tion Day in 1960, four unanswer­able ques­tions awaited Clar­ence Gaskins, a Black voter in Geor­gia look­ing to cast his ballot for pres­id­ent. Upon arrival at his desig­nated polling place, he was ushered into a room that held a jar of corn, a cucum­ber, a water­melon, and a bar of soap. He was informed that in order to vote, he first had to answer the follow­ing correctly:

“How many kernels of corn are in the jar? How many bumps on the cucum­ber? How many seeds in the water­melon? And how many bubbles in the bar of soap?”

Clar­ence didn’t bother guess­ing once the polling offi­cial admit­ted there were no right answers. His vote was neither cast nor coun­ted.

The connec­tion between race and voter suppres­sion did not end in the 1960s. While the overtly racist voter suppres­sion tactics of the Jim Crow past are no longer with us, voter suppres­sion remains a main­stay of elect­oral polit­ics in the United States today.

Erect­ing New Barri­ers to the Ballot Box

Over the past decade, half the states in the nation have placed new, direct burdens on people’s right to vote, abet­ted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down a key provi­sion of the Voting Rights Act. And the racial cause and effect of these seem­ingly race-neut­ral laws are hard to escape.

Take strict voter ID.

These laws require voters to present a govern­ment-issued photo ID in order to vote, and they offer no mean­ing­ful fall­back options for people who do not possess one of these IDs. Like their Jim Crow prede­cessors, strict voter ID laws are often defen­ded by refer­ence to a racially neut­ral need to defend the “integ­rity” of elec­tions. Specific­ally, defend­ers claim that voter ID laws are needed to combat voter imper­son­a­tion fraud. But study after study has shown that voter imper­son­a­tion fraud is vanish­ingly rare.

Many also claim that these laws impose little burden because every­one has the requis­ite ID — but the real­ity is that millions of Amer­ic­ans don’t, and they are dispro­por­tion­ately people of color.

Look at North Dakota: a federal district court found that, when the state enacted its current ID law in 2017, 19 percent of Native Amer­ic­ans lacked qual­i­fy­ing ID compared to less than 12 percent of other poten­tial voters.

Like­wise, Texas permits voters to use a hand­gun license to vote, but not a student ID from a state univer­sity. More than 80 percent of hand­gun licenses issued to Texans in 2018 went to white Texans, while more than half of the students in the Univer­sity of Texas system are racial or ethnic minor­it­ies.

Strict voter ID is just one of a number of racially charged voting restric­tions that states have adop­ted this decade. For example, follow­ing the elec­tion and reelec­tion of Pres­id­ent Obama — and the concom­it­ant surge in turnout by Black voters — states like North Caro­lina imposed new restric­tions on early voting, which was dispro­por­tion­ately used by people of color.

Other states imposed new restric­tions on the voter regis­tra­tion process. In 2019, for example, Tennessee imposed new hurdles for third-party voter regis­tra­tion drives in response to a “large-scale effort to register black voters” ahead of the 2018 elec­tion.

In 2017, Geor­gia enacted an “exact match” law mandat­ing that voters’ names on regis­tra­tion records must perfectly match their names on approved forms of iden­ti­fic­a­tion. In the leadup to the 2018 elec­tion, approx­im­ately 80 percent of Geor­gia voters whose regis­tra­tions were blocked by this law were people of color. (A lawsuit forced the state to largely end the policy in 2019.)

Fact

80%
of Geor­gia voters blocked by the state’s “exact match” voter regis­tra­tion law were people of color in 2018.

Complaint, Geor­gia Coali­tion for the People’s Agenda, Inc. v. Kemp ¶ 68 (Oct. 11, 2018)

Further­more, the Bren­nan Center has docu­mented a surge in voter purges — the some­times error-prone process by which elec­tion offi­cials remove allegedly ineligible voters from the rolls — in juris­dic­tions with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 Voting Rights Act decision ended the require­ment for those places to get permis­sion (or “preclear­ance”) from the federal govern­ment before chan­ging their voting rules. After­wards, the median purge rate in counties previ­ously covered by the law was 40 percent higher than the purge rate in other juris­dic­tions.

Unsur­pris­ingly, in the past decade, federal courts have repeatedly found that voting restric­tions and other voting meas­ures were passed with a racially discrim­in­at­ory purpose.

“Meet James Crow, Esquire”

As these examples make clear, race contin­ues to play a key role in the voting process. The racial compon­ents of new voting restric­tions are still here, but they are more subtle. Comment­ing on this change, civil rights activ­ist Rev. William Barber II has said, “Jim Crow did not retire: he went to law school and launched a second career. Meet James Crow, Esquire.”

As voter suppres­sion contin­ues to evolve — with communit­ies of color still bear­ing the brunt — protect­ing the right to vote remains as import­ant today as it has ever been.