Voter suppression in the United States

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Voter suppression in the United States concerns allegations about various efforts, legal and illegal, used to prevent eligible voters from their right to vote. Where found, such voter suppression efforts vary by state, local government, precinct, and election.


Impediments to voter registration[edit]

Some laws and administrative practices have made it more difficult for people to register to vote. Florida enacted a deadline for the submission of voter registration forms in 2011, with penalties for late filing.[1] The law ended the voter registration work by one organization, the League of Women Voters, whose spokesperson said, "Despite the fact that the League of Women Voters is one of the nation’s most respected civic organizations, with a 91-year history of registering and educating voters, we will be unable to comply with the egregious provisions contained in [this bill]."[2]

Photo ID laws[edit]

In the United States, supporters of photo ID laws say that photographic IDs (such as driver's licenses or student IDs) are available and that presenting such IDs is a minor inconvenience when weighed against the possibility of ineligible voters affecting elections. Opponents argue that photo ID requirements disproportionately affect minority, handicapped and elderly voters who do not normally maintain driver's licenses. Also, requiring such groups to obtain and keep track of photo IDs that are otherwise unneeded is considered a suppression tactic aimed at those groups.[3]

In one instance Indiana's photo ID law barred 12 retired nuns in South Bend, Indiana from voting in the state 2008 Democratic primary election, because they did not have photo IDs. John Borkowski, a South Bend lawyer volunteering as an election watchdog for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said, "This law was passed supposedly to prevent and deter voter fraud, even though there was no real record of serious voter fraud in Indiana."[4][5]

Proponents of a similar law proposed for Texas in March 2009 argued that photo identification was necessary to prevent widespread voter fraud. Opponents responded that there was no evidence of voter fraud in Texas, so no remedy is required. They said that the "remedy" would decrease voting by senior citizens, the disabled, and lower-income residents. Opponents also cited a study stating that 1 million of the state's 13.5 million registered voters do not have a photo ID.[6]

State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) said, "Voter fraud not only is alive and well in the U.S., but also alive and well in Texas. The danger of voter fraud threatens the integrity of the entire electoral process." Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) said the proposed law "is not about voter fraud. There is no voter fraud. This is about voter suppression." Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) spent $1.4 million investigating voter fraud and from 2002–2012 brought 311 accusations of voter fraud to the attorney general's office. 57 cases have been resolved, and among these convictions were two cases of voter impersonation – arguably the type of fraud that photo ID laws would prevent.[7][8] More than 8,000,000 votes were cast in Texas in the most recent presidential election.

Legislation to impose photo ID requirements was prepared by the conservative organization ALEC and circulated to conservative state legislators.[3]

In 2011, more than 100 Democratic members of Congress urged the Department of Justice to oppose such legislation, arguing that it "has the potential to block millions of eligible American voters, and thus suppress the right to vote."[9]

Purging of voter rolls[edit]

On August 24, 2016, Rolling Stone magazine published a report by investigative reporter Greg Palast entitled, “The GOP's Stealth War Against Voters: Will an anti-voter-fraud program designed by one of Trump's advisers deny tens of thousands their right to vote in November?” Palast reported that “In January 2013, Kobach [the Secretary of State of Kansas] addressed a gathering of the National Association of State Election Directors about combating an [alleged] epidemic of ballot-stuffing across the country. He announced that Crosscheck had already uncovered 697,537 'potential duplicate voters' in 15 states, and that the state of Kansas was prepared to cover the cost of compiling a nationwide list. That was enough to persuade 13 more states to hand over their voter files to Kobach's office.” Palast alleges that virtually all of these 697,537 'potential duplicate voters' failed to meet Kobach's claims that they matched first, middle, and last names, birth dates, and the last 4 digits of people's Social Security number: Palast interviewed Donald Alexander Webster Jr., an African-American registered in Ohio; Crosscheck claimed that D. A. Webster, Jr., was also registered as Donald Eugene Webster (no "Jr.") in Charlottesville, Virginia. D. A. Webster, Jr., assured Palast he had never been to Charlottesville. Both of these individuals “were subject to losing their ability to vote,” Palast reported. Voting twice is a felony, but Palast failed to find any prosecutions of double voting.[10]

In his documentary "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" (2016), Palast explains that over 7 million voters—almost entirely voters of color—were on the Crosscheck lists by the time of the 2016 presidential election, allegedly because these voters had all voted multiple times in previous elections (although no one from these lists had been prosecuted for voting twice, which is a felony crime with a five-year jail sentence). Palast explains that these cross-check lists were produced only in GOP-controlled states and that the names on the list were common last names of Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans, such as "Garcia," "Hernandez," "Washington," and "Lee."[11] Since the election, Palast has appeared on the independent media news program Democracy Now! and has explained that on election day, approximately 1.1 million voters of color found themselves bumped off the official voter rolls through Crosscheck.[12]

In 2008, more than 98,000 registered Georgia voters were removed from the roll of voters because of a computer mismatch in their personal identification information. Some 4,500 voters had to prove their citizenship to regain their right to vote.[13] Between November 2015 and early 2016, over 120,000 voters were dropped from rolls in Brooklyn, NYC.[14] Officials have stated that the purge was a mistake and that those dropped represented a "broad cross-section" of the electorate. However an WNYC analysis found that the purge had disproportionately affected majority-Hispanic districts. The board announced that it would reinstate all voters in time for the 2016 Congressional primary.[15] The Board of Elections subsequently suspended the Republican appointee in connection to the purge, but kept on her Democratic counterpart.[16]

In 1998, Florida created the Florida Central Voter File to combat vote fraud documented in the 1997 Miami mayoral election. Many people were purged from voter registration lists in Florida, because their names were similar to those of convicted felons, who are not allowed to vote under Florida law. According to the Palm Beach Post, African-Americans accounted for 88% of those removed from the rolls but were only about 11% of Florida's voters.[17] This may have cost Al Gore the presidency in the 2000 US presidential election.

Felon disenfranchisement[edit]

In 2004, 5.3 million Americans were denied the right to vote because of previous convictions. Thirteen states permanently disenfranchise convicted felons; eighteen states restore voting rights after completion of prison, parole, and probation; four states re-enfranchise felons after they have been released from prison and have completed parole; thirteen states allow felons who have been released from prison to vote, and two states do not disenfranchise felons at all.[18] Some states require felons to complete a process to restore voting rights, but offender advocates say such processes can be very difficult.

The United States is the only democracy in the world that regularly bans large numbers of felons from voting after they have discharged their sentences. Many countries including Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Peru, Sweden, and Zimbabwe allow prisoners to vote (unless convicted of crimes against the electoral system).[19] Some countries, notably the U.K., disenfranchise people for only as long as they are in prison (however, this has been challenged by the European Court of Human Rights).

In Florida during the 2000 presidential election, some non-felons were banned due to record-keeping errors and not warned of their disqualification until the deadline for contesting it had passed.

This form of vote suppression in the United States disproportionately affects minorities including African-Americans and Latinos.[19][20][additional citation needed] Disenfranchisement of felons is opposed by some as a form of the medieval practice of civil death.[20]

Transgender disenfranchisement[edit]

Transgender disenfranchisement related to voting is also present.

Disinformation about voting procedures[edit]

Voters may be given false information about when and how to vote, leading them to fail to cast valid ballots. For example, in recall elections for the Wisconsin State Senate in 2011, Americans for Prosperity (a conservative organization that was supporting Republican candidates) sent many Democratic voters a mailing that gave an incorrect deadline for absentee ballots. Voters who relied on the deadline in the mailing would have sent in their ballots too late for them to be counted.[21] The organization said that the mistake was a typographical error.[22]

Inequality in Election Day resources[edit]

Elections in the United States are funded at the local level, often unequally. In the 2004 elections, Wyoming spent $2.15 per voter while California spent $3.99 per voter. In contrast, Canada spends $9.51 per voter. Underfunded election areas can result in long lines at polling places, requiring some voters either to wait hours to cast a ballot or to forgo their right to vote in that election. Voters who cannot wait the required amount of time are therefore effectively disenfranchised, while voters in well-funded areas with sufficient voting capacity may face minimal or no waiting time. This, coupled with the fact that most elections are held on Tuesdays or other weekdays, would generally make voting more difficult for workers who work full-time or longer hours and/or commute.

Delays at polling places are widely regarded as being a greater problem in urban areas.[23][24]

Caging lists[edit]

Caging lists have been used by political parties to eliminate potential voters registered with other political parties. A political party sends registered mail to addresses of registered voters. If the mail is returned as undeliverable, the mailing organization uses that fact to challenge the registration, arguing that because the voter could not be reached at the address, the registration is fraudulent.[25]

Partisan election administration[edit]

While the majority of the world's democracies use independent agents to manage elections, 33 of 50 state election directors in the United States are elected partisans. Those party affiliations can create conflicts of interest, or at least the appearance entonses, when directing elections. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris served as state co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign during the 2000 presidential election, and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell served as his state's Bush-Cheney co-chair during the 2004 presidential election.[23]

Jim Crow laws[edit]

In the United States, voter suppression was used in most Southern states until the Voting Rights Act (1965) made most disenfranchisement and voting qualifications illegal. Traditional voter suppression tactics included the institution of poll taxes and literacy tests, aimed at suppressing the votes of African Americans and poor white working class voters.[26][27]

Off-year elections[edit]

As off-year elections generally have much lower turnout, they can be a means by which politicians can get policies approved that otherwise would not. This is because the low turnout makes it easier for organised interest groups and voters with vested interests to let their policy goals dominate.[28][29]

Historical examples[edit]

2002 New Hampshire Senate election phone jamming scandal[edit]

In the 2002 New Hampshire Senate election phone jamming scandal, Republican officials attempted to reduce the number of Democratic voters by paying professional telemarketers in Idaho to make repeated hang-up calls to the telephone numbers used by the Democratic Party's ride-to-the-polls phone lines on election day. By tying up the lines, voters seeking rides from the Democratic Party would have more difficulty reaching the party to ask for transportation to and from their polling places.[30][31]

2004 presidential election[edit]

Allegations surfaced in several states that a private group, Voters Outreach of America, which had been empowered by the individual states, had collected and submitted Republican voter registration forms while inappropriately discarding voter registration forms where the new voter had chosen to register with the Democratic Party. Such people would believe they had registered to vote, and would only discover on election day that they were not registered and could not cast a ballot.[32][33][34][35]

Michigan Republican state legislator John Pappageorge was quoted as saying, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election.".[36]

In 2006, four employees of the John Kerry campaign were convicted of slashing the tires of 25 vans rented by the Wisconsin state Republican Party which were to be used for driving Republican voters and monitors to the polls. At the campaign workers' sentencing, Judge Michael B. Brennan told the defendants, "Voter suppression has no place in our country. Your crime took away that right to vote for some citizens."[37][38]

2006 Virginia Senate election[edit]

During the Virginia U.S. Senate election, Secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections Jean Jensen concluded that incidents of voter suppression appeared widespread and deliberate. Documented incidents of voter suppression include:[39]

  • Democratic voters receiving calls incorrectly informing them voting will lead to arrest.
  • Widespread calls fraudulently claiming to be "[Democratic Senate candidate Jim] Webb Volunteers," falsely telling voters their voting location had changed.
  • Fliers paid for by the Republican Party, stating "SKIP THIS ELECTION" that allegedly attempted to suppress African-American turnout.

The FBI has since launched an investigation into the suppression attempts.[40][clarification needed] Despite the allegations, Democrat Jim Webb narrowly defeated incumbent George Allen.

2008 presidential election[edit]

A review of states' records by The New York Times found unlawful actions leading to widespread voter purges.[41]

A dispute between the Social Security Administration commissioner and the National Association of Secretaries of State about the use of the Social Security database to test the validity of voters led to the shutdown of the database over the Columbus Day holiday weekend.[42]


Wait times of 2 to 10 hours were reported during early voting at multiple Georgia locations.[43]


Before the presidential election, on September 16, 2008, Obama legal counsel announced that they would be seeking an injunction to stop an alleged caging scheme in Michigan wherein the state Republican party would use home foreclosure lists to challenge voters still using their foreclosed home as a primary address at the polls.[44][45] Michigan GOP officials called the suit "desperate".[46] A Federal Appeals court ordered the reinstatement of 5,500 voters wrongly purged from the voter rolls by the state.[43]


The conservative nonprofit Minnesota Majority has been reported as making phone calls claiming that the Minnesota Secretary of State had concerns about the validity of the voters registration. Their actions have been referred to the Ramsey County attorney's office and the U.S. Attorney looked into Johnson's complaint.[47]


On October 5, 2008, the Republican Lt. Governor of Montana, John Bohlinger, accused the Montana Republican Party of vote caging to purge 6,000 voters from three counties which trend Democratic. These purges included war veterans and active duty soldiers.[25]


Wait times of six hours were reported for early voting in Franklin County, leading to people leaving the line without voting.[43]


The Republican Party attempted to have all 60,000 voters in the heavily Democratic city of Milwaukee who had registered since January 1, 2006, deleted from the voter rolls. The requests were rejected by the Milwaukee Election Commission, although Republican commissioner Bob Spindell voted in favor of deletion.[48]

2010 Maryland gubernatorial election[edit]

In the Maryland gubernatorial election in 2010, the campaign of Republican candidate Bob Ehrlich hired a consultant who advised that "the first and most desired outcome is voter suppression", in the form of having "African-American voters stay home."[49] To that end, the Republicans placed thousands of Election Day robocalls to Democratic voters, telling them that the Democratic candidate, Martin O'Malley, had won, although in fact the polls were still open for some two more hours.[50] The Republicans' call, worded to seem as if it came from Democrats, told the voters, "Relax. Everything's fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight."[49] The calls reached 112,000 voters in majority-African American areas.[50] In 2011, Ehrlich's campaign manager, Paul Schurick, was convicted of fraud and other charges because of the calls.[49][50] In 2012, he was sentenced to 30 days of home detention, a one-year suspended jail sentence, and 500 hours of community service over the four years of his probation, with no fine or jail time.[51] The Democratic candidate won by a margin of more than 10 percent.

2012 Florida[edit]

A law was passed in 2011 by the Florida legislature which reduced the days available for early voting, barred voter-registration activities of groups like the League of Women Voters, and made it more difficult to vote for voters who since the last election had moved to a different county within the state.[52] Jim Greer, the main source for the information cited in the Palm Beach Post article, was sentenced to 18 months for embezzling from the Florida Republican Party.[53] A majority of early voting ballots cast in 2008 were cast by Democratic voters, and minority voters are more likely to move. The reason given by Republican politicians for the law was to reduce cost and to deter voter fraud; however, some former senior Republican officials alleged that the true drivers of the law were GOP political consultants who were seeking ways to suppress the Democratic vote.[54]

Several factors, including the reduction in early voting, reductions in the number of polling places, and an unusually lengthy ballot that included 11 detailed constitutional amendments, all combined to produce long lines on election day, with waits of several hours.[55] By one estimate, the result was that at least 201,000 likely voters did not vote, either leaving the line in frustration or not even getting in line when they saw how long it would take.[55]

2016 presidential election[edit]


Despite high turnout during the Arizona Democratic primary, 2016, many voters spent over five hours in lines at several Maricopa County and Arizona polling stations. From 2008 to 2016, polling locations were cut down over 70 percent, from over 200 to 40. State officials claimed the decrease was a cost savings directive. Republican Governor Doug Ducey stated, "If people want to take the time to vote they should be able to, and their vote should be counted."[56]

New York[edit]

An audit was started in April 2016 after 125,000[57] voters in Brooklyn were removed from voter rolls and voters had trouble accessing polling sites.[58]

North Carolina[edit]

In 2013, the state House passed a bill that requires voters to show a photo ID issued by North Carolina, a passport, or a military identification card to begin in 2016. Out-of-state drivers licenses were to be accepted only if the voter registered within 90 days of the election, and university photo identification was not acceptable.[59] In July 2016, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial court decision in a number of consolidated actions and struck down the law's photo ID requirement, finding that the new voting provisions targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision," and that the legislators had acted with clear "discriminatory intent" in enacting strict election rules, shaping the rules based on data they received about African-American registration and voting patterns.[60][61] On May 15, 2017, the law officially died when the US Supreme Court rejected efforts to review the Appeals Court ruling.[62]


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