Dr. Davin L. Phoenix is an associate professor in political science at the University of California, Irvine. Samantha S. Canty is a doctoral student studying race and voter turnout in the United States. In this Opinion Piece, they discuss how the changing legal and political landscape in the U.S. has created “potentially insurmountable barriers” to voting, particularly for minority and marginalized groups.
They also highlight actions to “turn the page on the far too extensive history of voter suppression” and share their vision of a future in which “all segments of the diverse U.S. electorate” can take part in the democratic process.
“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
– James Baldwin
The history of voting in the U.S. is one defined by struggle. In the not-so-distant past, those who were not white male property owners struggled to earn the legal right to enfranchisement. They faced a continuous struggle to overcome a variety of obstacles put in place to make it more difficult for them to cast their ballot.
When we look upon the current political landscape, we see history repeating itself. States across the nation have erected a new series of hurdles that make it more challenging for particular sets of people to cast their ballots.
What are those hurdles? How do they harken back to the Jim Crow era of voter suppression? And what are the most effective means to eradicate them and ensure that the power of the vote is welded equally across all members of a rapidly diversifying U.S. electorate?
Video summary: MNT election coverage
It is possible to trace the origin of the modern wave of state efforts to limit enfranchisement back to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder. This ruling stripped the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 of one of its most effective mechanisms for ensuring equitable voter access: preclearance.
Shelby ruled that the federal government no longer had to give preclearance to changes that states planned to make to their voting rules and procedures.
The 2012 election may have corroborated this point. GOP, or Republican, candidate Mitt Romney won a percentage of votes from white Americans that, in the preceding 60 years, only Ronald Reagan had exceeded.
Yet Democratic incumbent Barack Obama comfortably won reelection, primarily on the strength of the vigorous turnout among voters of color — Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans. In fact, turnout among Black voters actually exceeded that of white voters — a first in recorded history.
It is striking that just as the vast potential impact of voters of color was coming into clearer focus, numerous states took actions that would quell that potential.
Almost immediately after the Shelby ruling, a wave of states began passing and implementing voting procedures that almost certainly would not have withstood federal preclearance.
These include photo ID requirements, decreased early voting periods, limits on mail-in voting, and the removal of same-day voter registration. All of these measures represent a hard pivot away from the long-running trend of laws designed to make access to the polls easier.
While for many voters, these new impositions may amount to minor inconveniences, for people belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups, naturalized citizens, young adults, and those with a low income, these new rules often create potentially insurmountable barriers to the vote.
Numerous studies reveal that people of color are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to possess the forms of photo ID that states with voter ID requirements accept. States often exacerbate this disparity by severely limiting opportunities to attain the required ID.
For example, as Alabama imposed its photo ID requirement, it simultaneously shut down 31 driver’s license-issuing office locations across the state — many of which were located in majority-Black counties. Furthermore, the seemingly arbitrary list of acceptable forms of ID is highlighted in Texas, where Texas handgun licenses count at the polls, but college ID cards do not.
Despite the repeated claims that such requirements are essential to prevent voter fraud, little to no evidence has materialized to show that this fraud exists to any meaningful degree.
Recent law changes tend to have a disproportionate effect on people of color far beyond ID requirements.
For example, in Florida, Black and Latinx American voters are substantially more likely to take part in early voting. After the state reduced its early voting period from 14 to 8 days, the overall early voting turnout declined significantly, with disproportionately larger losses among Black and Democratic-identifying voters.
In North Carolina, African American youths were significantly more likely to register to vote through the state’s preregistration policy for 16- and 17-year-olds — a policy that the state’s Voter Information Verification Act ended in 2013.
Finally, some states have carried out aggressive purges of their voter rolls. For example, Ohio drops voters from its rolls without their knowledge if they miss two consecutive voting cycles. A 2016 Reuters study reported the removal of at least 144,000 people from the voting rolls in recent years in Ohio’s three largest and most racially diverse counties: Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus.
Actions such as these only magnify the burden of enfranchisement in the U.S. — a burden that is already higher than that of other democracies.
Whereas countries that automatically register their electorate, such as Germany and Sweden, have turnout rates in the region of 75–85%, those in the U.S. hover around 55–65%.
Designating a workday without federal holiday status as Election Day makes voting more difficult for people who work inflexible work hours, have limited access to transportation, or have limited options for child care, thus imposing a greater burden for people employed in low wage work.
The higher costs of voting in the U.S. than in other democratic nations strike against the long-held notion that voting is a right. In practice, voting in the U.S. is too often a privilege — one most easy for older, white, and more socioeconomically secure voters to exercise.
As these additional hurdles that we have highlighted are uniquely impactful for low income, racial minority, and younger prospective voters, they are echoes of a past era in which practices were designed to operate within the confines of constitutional law while severely restricting the access of people of color — primarily African Americans in the South — to the polls.
The limited range of acceptable forms of ID imposes financial burdens that recall past requirements of property ownership or payment of poll taxes.
Requiring people to keep up with the dizzying pace of rule changes regarding when and how to register and where to cast their ballot imposes a cognitive burden not too dissimilar from the Byzantine literacy tests of the past era.
Indeed, the measures that states have adopted since the Shelby ruling appear to have entrapped many members of marginalized groups in a dark history of voter suppression. We see this clearly in the decline in minority turnout in the first Presidential election since Shelby.
The key driver of this decline was the sharp drop in Black voting, which dipped to its lowest level in 16 years.
Just as easily as states can increase the burdens that they impose on particular sets of voters, they can pass measures that ease these burdens.
As we alluded to, early voting periods can reduce costs for people with limited work flexibility, transportation, or child care options. States with robust early voting periods have seen increased turnout, with gains especially concentrated among low income and racial minority voters.
A recent study touts the many benefits of universal mail-in voting. Colorado’s offering of universal vote by mail led to significant turnout increases among many sets of low propensity voters, including young people, blue-collar workers, people with lower levels of educational attainment, and people of color.
Even turnout among well-resourced voters in the state increased by more than 5%. When Oregon moved to an entirely vote-by-mail system in the 2000 election, turnout increased by more than eight percentage points compared with the 1996 numbers.
As the continuing scourge of COVID-19 makes assembling in long lines to cast ballots a risky proposition, expanding access to mail-in voting stands out as a sensible, and indeed vital, action to take.
Federal efforts to limit the operational capacity of the U.S. postal service have compounded this rhetorical assault. Adding further insult to injury, some states have imposed arbitrary limits on the number of drop-off locations for absentee ballots.
Again, Texas — the second most populous state in the U.S. — offers an extreme example of this practice, as Governor Greg Abbot recently mandated the establishment of only one drop-off location for absentee ballots in each county, regardless of its size. Such actions can depress turnout, as people weigh the risks of exposing themselves to the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, while casting their ballot.
As a result, the global health crisis of COVID-19 may well become exacerbated by a corresponding democratic crisis.
History does not need to repeat itself. But there remains a clear need for close federal scrutiny of state changes to election laws and their potentially adverse consequences for socially and economically marginalized group members.
On many occasions, the federal government or county courts have intervened to temper the impulses of states to erect steep barriers to voting for marginalized group members. For example, after a federal probe revealed that Alabama’s Department of Motor Vehicle office closures disproportionately harmed Black residents in rural and Black Belt counties, the state reopened some of its offices.
Recently, a county judge in Texas ruled that counties can have multiple ballot drop-off locations, in defiance of Gov. Abbot’s decree.
These interventions make it clear that the oversight of election procedures can serve as the impetus for policy changes that can expand rather than restrict access to the polls. The question becomes, in the stead of a VRA largely rendered toothless, from where can such oversight emerge?
We see promise in the idea of having a nonpartisan federal commission responsible for assessing the disproportionate effects of states’ election laws on ballot access across race and ethnicity, income, and age.
While this commission would lack the power of enforcement, its reports could facilitate lawsuits that challenge state laws imposing barriers to voting, as well as inform efforts by advocacy groups to mobilize communities whom these laws adversely affect.
Finally, the commission could simply raise awareness of the unequal practice of enfranchisement in the U.S.
What further concrete actions should be taken? Expand vote-by-mail and early voting periods. Restore same-day registration and preregistration for the youth. Acknowledge that elections are sufficiently legitimate without the requirement of photo identification for voters.
Further steps to reduce the costs of voting in the U.S. would include making Election Day a federal holiday and automatically registering voters. We also call for an end to the practice of disenfranchising formerly incarcerated people (and, it is important to note, not making their right to vote contingent on the payment of legal fees — another echo of the past era of poll taxes).
By taking these steps, the U.S. can truly begin to turn the page on the far too extensive history of voter suppression and look toward a future in which all segments of the diverse U.S. electorate can be full participants in the electoral process.
To check your voter registration status, click here to visit the website of VoteAmerica, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout. They can also help you register to vote, vote by mail, request an absentee ballot, or find your polling place.