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Voter Suppression in 2020

Race discrimination in voting persisted in the 2020 elections and their aftermath.

Published: August 20, 2021
Voters line up at a polling station to cast their ballots during the presidential primary in Houston, Texas on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Voters line up to cast their ballots during the presidential primary in Houston, Texas, on March 3, 2020 (Mark Felix/Getty)

In key respects, the 2020 elec­tions demon­strated the strength and resi­li­ence of Amer­ica’s elect­oral system. Voter turnout smashed records in almost every state, and despite unpre­ced­en­ted chal­lenges from the pandemic, we did not suffer an elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion cata­strophe. foot­note1_d5d9731 1 Kevin Schaul, Kate Rabinow­itz, and Ted Mellnik, “2020 Turnout is the Highest in Over a Century,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Decem­ber 28, 2020, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/graph­ics/2020/elec­tions/voter-turnout/; Drew DeSil­ver, “Turnout Soared in 2020 as Nearly Two-Thirds of Eligible U.S. Voters Cast Ballots for Pres­id­ent,” Pew Research, Janu­ary 28, 2021, https://www.pewre­search.org/fact-tank/2021/01/28/turnout-soared-in-2020-as-nearly-two-thirds-of-eligible-u-s-voters-cast-ballots-for-pres­id­ent/. Oppon­ents of voting rights suggest that these successes mean that voting barri­ers are no longer a signi­fic­ant concern and that our coun­try has moved past the era of voter suppres­sion. foot­note2_cbzid5u 2 See Hans von Spakovsky, “Voter Suppres­sion is a Myth, but It’s an Article of Faith to Liber­als,” Herit­age Found­a­tion, Febru­ary 14, 2020, https://www.herit­age.org/elec­tion-integ­rity/comment­ary/voter-suppres­sion-myth-its-article-faith-liber­als; Hans von Spakovsky, “Despite Predic­tions, Shelby v. Holder Did Not Lead to Voter Suppres­sion,” News­week, Decem­ber 8, 2020, https://www.news­week.com/despite-predic­tions-shelby-v-holder-did-not-lead-voter-suppres­sion-opin­ion-1552941; Ilya Shapiro, “The Voter Suppres­sion Lie,” Cato Insti­tute, April 22, 2021, https://www.cato.org/comment­ary/voter-suppres­sion-lie#. However, a closer look into turnout numbers reveals persist­ent and troub­ling racial dispar­it­ies that are due in part to racial discrim­in­a­tion in the voting process. And in the 2020 elec­tion cycle, voter suppres­sion was alive and well.

Over­all, 70.9 percent of eligible white voters cast ballots in the 2020 elec­tions, compared with only 58.4 percent of non-white voters. foot­note3_qa9ecxk 3 Kevin Morris and Coryn Grange, “Large Racial Turnout Gap Persisted in 2020,” Bren­nan Center, August 6, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/large-racial-turnout-gap-persisted-2020-elec­tion. Despite signi­fic­ant gains in over­all voter parti­cip­a­tion, the turnout gap between white and non-white voters has gone virtu­ally unchanged since 2014 and has in fact grown since its modern-era lows in 2008 and 2012, accord­ing to a recent Bren­nan Center analysis. foot­note4_w2zk4oo 4 Morris and Grange, “Large Racial Turnout Gap Persisted in 2020.” The white—non-white turnout gap in 2020 was 12.5 percent in 2020, an increase from a recent low of 8 percent in 2012.

During the same period, racially discrim­in­at­ory voter suppres­sion entered a new age. After the 2010 elec­tions, for the first time since the peak of the Jim Crow era, states across the coun­try began to enact laws making it more diffi­cult to vote. foot­note5_12fd­c64 5 Wendy Weiser and Lawrence Norden, “Voting Law Changes in 2012,” Bren­nan Center, Octo­ber 3, 2011, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-law-changes-2012. This wave of voter suppres­sion was inter­twined with race and the nation’s chan­ging racial demo­graph­ics and was, at least in part, a back­lash against rising turnout among communit­ies of color contrib­ut­ing to the elec­tion of the nation’s first Black pres­id­ent. foot­note6_ylh055m 6 Theodore R. John­son, “The New Voter Suppres­sion,” Bren­nan Center, Janu­ary 16, 2020. https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/new-voter-suppres­sion. Social scient­ists have estab­lished that high rates of or increases in minor­ity turnout in a state often lead to the passage of voting restric­tions in that state. Keith Gunnar Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien, “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrict­ive Voter Access Policies,” Soci­ology Faculty Public­a­tion Series Paper 11 (Decem­ber 2013), https://schol­ar­works.umb.edu/soci­ology_faculty_pubs/11/. Efforts to suppress the votes of communit­ies of color accel­er­ated in 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. foot­note7_3yiabem 7 570 U.S. 529 (2013). In the eight years since, and espe­cially in 2020, these trends contin­ued. foot­note8_uwf5ixb 8 See, e.g., Myrna Pérez, “Seven Years of Gutting Voting Rights,” Bren­nan Center, June 25, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/7-years-gutting-voting-rights; Wendy Weiser and Max Feld­man, “The State of Voting 2018,” Bren­nan Center, June 5, 2018, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/state-voting-2018; Rebecca Ayala, “Voting Prob­lems 2018,” Bren­nan Center, Novem­ber 5, 2018. https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/voting-prob­lems-2018; Kevin Morris, Myrna Pérez, Jonathan Brater, and Chris­topher Deluzio, “Purges: A Grow­ing Threat to the Right to Vote,” Bren­nan Center, July 20, 2018, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/purges-grow­ing-threat-right-vote; “Demo­cracy Diver­ted: Polling Place Clos­ures and the Right to Vote,” Lead­er­ship Confer­ence, Septem­ber 2019, http://civil­rights­docs.info/pdf/reports/Demo­cracy-Diver­ted.pdf; Ian Vandewalker, “Digital Disin­form­a­tion and Vote Suppres­sion,” Bren­nan Center, Septem­ber 2, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/digital-disin­form­a­tion-and-vote-suppres­sion; Sean Morales-Doyle et al., “Voters Should Not be Intim­id­ated,” Bren­nan Center, Octo­ber 7, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/voters-should-not-be-intim­id­ated; Eliza Sweren-Becker, “Filling the Voting Rights Hole Left by SCOTUS in Shelby County v. Holder,” Bren­nan Center, June 22, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/filling-voting-rights-hole-left-scotus-shelby-county-v-holder.

Racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting takes many forms, ranging from blatant and open attempts to restrict access to voting among communit­ies of color to more subtle policies that place heav­ier burdens on certain communit­ies. In 2020, voters of color faced the full spec­trum of racial voter suppres­sion. This report provides an over­view of the vari­ous forms of racially discrim­in­at­ory voter suppres­sion that took place in the 2020 elec­tions and their after­math.

The purpose of this report is to cata­log instances of discrim­in­at­ory voting changes and prac­tices occur­ring in and since 2020 and provide context for the broader polit­ical move­ment behind many of these changes. In terms of voter suppres­sion, 2020 was a banner year, and not just because of the volume of racially discrim­in­at­ory changes and incid­ents. Increas­ingly, the public offi­cials and polit­ical oper­at­ives behind these voting changes are acknow­ledging that the intent of their new laws and policies is to exclude certain people from the elect­or­ate and bring about partic­u­lar outcomes.

For example, as Arizona legis­lat­ors were debat­ing new restrict­ive voting bills, State Rep. John Kavanagh stated that Arizona Repub­lic­ans “don’t mind putting secur­ity meas­ures in that won’t let every­body vote” and that he was more concerned with the “qual­ity of votes” than with over­all voter turnout. foot­note9_3jakl93 9 Timothy Bella, “A GOP Lawmaker Says the ‘Qual­ity’ of a Vote Matters. Crit­ics Say that’s ‘Straight Out of Jim Crow,’” Wash­ing­ton Post, March 13, 2021, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/polit­ics/2021/03/13/arizona-qual­ity-votes-kavanagh/. When defend­ing two of Arizon­a’s restrict­ive voting laws before the Supreme Court in March 2021, the attor­ney for the Repub­lican National Commit­tee admit­ted that the party’s interest in the laws was to avoid being at “a compet­it­ive disad­vant­age relat­ive to Demo­crats.” foot­note10_a1f6y9a 10 Tran­script of Oral Argu­ment at 37–38, Brnovich v. Demo­cratic National Commit­tee, 594 U.S. ____ (2021). And when discuss­ing propos­als to expand access to mail voting, Pres­id­ent Trump stated that an expan­sion of early and mail voting would lead to “levels of voting that if you agreed to it, you’d never have a Repub­lican elec­ted in this coun­try again.” foot­note11_f1cnl6y 11 Sam Levine, “Trump Says Repub­lic­ans would ‘Nev­er’ be Elec­ted Again if it was Easier to Vote,” Guard­ian, March 30, 2020, https://www.theguard­ian.com/us-news/2020/mar/30/trump-repub­lican-party-voting-reform-coronavirus.

These state­ments do not repres­ent judi­cial find­ings of inten­tional discrim­in­a­tion. But when viewed along­side the long list of instances of discrim­in­a­tion and racial dispar­it­ies in the 2020 elec­tion cycle, these state­ments offer a window into discrim­in­at­ory intent play­ing out in real time. This public rhet­oric provides import­ant context for under­stand­ing the full spec­trum of discrim­in­at­ory effects discussed in this report.

Examples of discrim­in­at­ory voting prac­tices — includ­ing new restrict­ive legis­la­tion, foot­note12_7ubxms5 12 “Voting Laws Roundup: July 2021,” Bren­nan Center, July 22, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-july-2021. discrim­in­at­ory voter roll purges, long lines and closed polling places, voter intim­id­a­tion and misin­form­a­tion, and efforts to over­throw elec­tions through litig­a­tion foot­note13_6943ubx 13 Myrna Pérez, “Why These New Elec­tion Lawsuits will Fail,” Bren­nan Center, Novem­ber 6, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/analysis-opin­ion/why-these-new-elec­tion-lawsuits-will-fail. For more details, see “Voting Rights Litig­a­tion Tracker 2020,” Bren­nan Center, last updated July 8, 2021, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/court-cases/voting-rights-litig­a­tion-tracker-2020. or by inval­id­at­ing ballots cast by mail foot­note14_zzratgb 14 See, e.g., Tom Hamburger et al., “Trump Invites Michigan Repub­lican Lead­ers to Meet with him at the White House as he Escal­ate Attempts to Over­turn Elec­tion Results,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Novem­ber 19, 2020, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/nation/2020/11/19/wayne-county-rescind-certi­fy­ing-elec­tion/; Jeff Amy, Darlene Superville, and Kate Brumback, “Trump, On Tape, Presses Ga. Offi­cial to ‘Find’ him Votes,” Asso­ci­ated Press, Janu­ary 3, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/elec­tion-2020-joe-biden-donaldtrump-geor­gia-elec­tions-a7b4aa4d8ce3b­f52301d­dbe620c6bff6; Amy Gard­ner, Tom Hamburger, and Josh Dawsey, “Graham’s Post-Elec­tion Call with Raffen­sper­ger will be Scru­tin­ized in Geor­gia Probe,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Febru­ary 12, 2021, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/polit­ics/lind­sey-graham-geor­gia-invest­ig­a­tion/2021/02/12/f12faa82–6d6b-11eb-9f80–3d7646ce1bc0_story.html. — must all be viewed in the context of these obvi­ous state­ments of intent. All of these instances are evid­ence of the same under­ly­ing prob­lem: the persist­ence and evol­u­tion of uncon­sti­tu­tional racial discrim­in­a­tion in our elec­tion system.

End Notes