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 exercising their right to vote. Where found, such voter suppression efforts vary by state, local government, precinct, and election. Separately, there have also been various efforts to enfranchise and disenfranchise various voters in the country, which concern whether or not people are eligible to vote in the first place (not covered by this article; see Voting rights in the United States).


Purging of voter rolls[edit]

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 were not allowed to vote at that time 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. However, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, nearly 89% of felons convicted in Florida are black; therefore, a purge of convicted felons could be expected to include a disproportionately high number of blacks. The Post added that "a review of state records, internal e-mails of DBT employees and testimony before the civil rights commission and an elections task force showed no evidence that minorities were specifically targeted".[1]

Between November 2015 and early 2016, over 120,000 voters were dropped from rolls in Brooklyn, New York.[2] 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.[3] The Board of Elections subsequently suspended the Republican appointee in connection to the purge, but kept on her Democratic counterpart.[4]

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.[5]

Limitations on early and absentee voting[edit]

In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers requested data on various voting practices, broken down by race. They then passed laws that restricted voting and registration many ways that disproportionally affected African Americans, including cutting back on early voting.[6][7] In a 2016 appellate court case, the 4th US District Court of Appeals struck down a law that removed the first week of early voting. They wrote that the GOP used the data they gathered to remove the first week of early voting because more African American voters voted during that week, and African American voters were more likely to vote for Democrats.[8] Between 2008 and 2012 in North Carolina, 70% of African American voters voted early.[9] After cuts to early voting, African American turnout in early voting was down by 8.7% (around 66,000 votes) in North Carolina.[10][11]

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.[12] The organization said that the mistake was a typographical error.[13][needs update]

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.[14]

Identification requirements[edit]

In July 2016, a federal appeals court found that a 2011 Texas voter ID law discriminated against black and Hispanic voters because only a few types of ID were allowed; for example, military IDs and concealed carry permits were allowed, but state employee photo IDs and university photo IDs were not.[15] In August 2017, an updated version of the same Texas voter ID law was found unconstitutional in federal district court; the district judge indicated that one potential remedy for the discrimination would be to order Texas election-related laws to be pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).[16] The court also ruled that the law would force some voters to spend money traveling to a government office to update their identification information; the court compared this provision to a poll tax.[17]

During the 21st century, several states with Republican-controlled governments passed restrictive voter ID laws affecting identification cards for college students (a liberal-leaning demographic group).[18]

Historical examples[edit]

==1838 Gallatin County Election Day Battle==[edit]

William Peniston, a candidate for the Missouri state legislature, made disparaging statements about the Mormons[19] and warned them not to vote in the election.[20] Reminding Daviess County residents of the growing electoral power of the Mormon community, Peniston made a speech in Gallatin claiming that if the Missourians "suffer such men as these [Mormons] to vote, you will soon lose your suffrage." Around 200 non-Mormons gathered in Gallatin on election day to prevent Mormons from voting.[21]

When about thirty Latter Day Saints approached the polling place, a Missourian named Dick Weldon declared that Mormons were not allowed to vote in Clay County. One of the Mormons present, Samuel Brown, claimed that Peniston's statements were false and then declared his intention to vote. This triggered a brawl between the bystanders.[19] The Mormons called upon the Danites, a Mormon vigilante group,[21] and the Missourians left the scene to obtain guns and ammunition and swore to kill the Mormons.[20] The skirmish is often cited as the first serious violence of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, which included the Missourians sacking the Mormon settlement of De Witt, the Mormons sacking non-Mormon homes in Daviees County, the Battle of Crooked River, the Haun's Mill Massacre and the eventual expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri under Missouri Executive Order 44.

Jim Crow laws[edit]

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States.[22] All were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Democratic-dominated state legislatures after the Reconstruction period.[23] The laws were enforced until 1965.[24] The origin of the phrase "Jim Crow" has often been attributed to "Jump Jim Crow", a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1832 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson's populist policies. As a result of Rice's fame, "Jim Crow" by 1838 had become a pejorative expression meaning "Negro". When southern legislatures passed laws of racial segregation directed against blacks at the end of the 19th century, these statutes became known as Jim Crow laws.[25]

During the Reconstruction period of 1865–1877, federal laws provided civil rights protections in the U.S. South for freedmen, the African Americans who had formerly been slaves, and the minority of blacks who had been free before the war. In the 1870s, Democrats gradually regained power in the Southern legislatures,[26] having used insurgent paramilitary groups, such as the White League and the Red Shirts, to disrupt Republican organizing, run Republican officeholders out of town, and intimidate blacks to suppress their voting.[27]

In 1877, a national Democratic Party compromise to gain Southern support in the presidential election (a corrupt bargain) resulted in the government's withdrawing the last of the federal troops from the South. White Democrats had regained political power in every Southern state.[28]

Blacks were still elected to local offices throughout the 1880s, but their voting was suppressed for state and national elections. Democrats passed laws to make voter registration and electoral rules more restrictive, with the result that political participation by most blacks and many poor whites began to decrease.[29][30] Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements.[29][30]

Voter turnout dropped drastically through the South as a result of such measures. In Louisiana, by 1900, black voters were reduced to 5,320 on the rolls, although they comprised the majority of the state's population. By 1910, only 730 blacks were registered, less than 0.5% of eligible black men. "In 27 of the state's 60 parishes, not a single black voter was registered any longer; in 9 more parishes, only one black voter was."[31] The cumulative effect in North Carolina meant that black voters were completely eliminated from voter rolls during the period from 1896–1904. The growth of their thriving middle class was slowed. In North Carolina and other Southern states, blacks suffered from being made invisible in the political system: "[W]ithin a decade of disfranchisement, the white supremacy campaign had erased the image of the black middle class from the minds of white North Carolinians."[31] In Alabama tens of thousands of poor whites were also disenfranchised, although initially legislators had promised them they would not be affected adversely by the new restrictions.[32]

In some cases, progressive measures intended to reduce election fraud, such as the Eight Box Law in South Carolina, acted against black and white voters who were illiterate, as they could not follow the directions.[33] While the separation of African Americans from the white general population was becoming legalized and formalized during the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), it was also becoming customary. For instance, even in cases in which Jim Crow laws did not expressly forbid black people to participate in sports or recreation, a segregated culture had become common.[25]

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.[34][35]

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.[36][37][38][39][needs update]

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."[40]

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."[41][42]

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:[43]

  • 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.[44][clarification needed] Despite the allegations, Democrat Jim Webb narrowly defeated incumbent George Allen.[45]

2008 presidential election[edit]


On September 16, 2008, attorneys for then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama announced their intention to seek an injunction to stop an alleged caging scheme in Michigan. It was alleged that the Michigan Republican Party used home foreclosure lists to challenge voters who used their foreclosed homes as their primary addresses at the polls.[46][47] Michigan GOP officials called the suit "desperate".[48] A federal appeals court ordered the reinstatement of 5,500 voters wrongly purged from the voter rolls by the state.[49][failed verification]


The conservative nonprofit Minnesota Majority reportedly made phone calls claiming that the Minnesota Secretary of State had concerns about the validity of voters' registration. Their actions have been referred to the Ramsey County attorney's office.[50][needs update]


Members of the New Black Panther Party were accused of voter intimidation following an incident that took place on Election Day in November 2008 at a polling station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[51] Two members of the New Black Panther party, Minister King Samir Shabazz, and Jerry Jackson, stood in front of the entrance to a polling station in uniforms that have been described as military or paramilitary.[52][53] Minister King Samir Shabazz carried a billy club, and is reported to have pointed it at voters while both men shouted racial slurs,[54] including phrases such as "white devil" and "you're about to be ruled by the black man, cracker".[55]

The incident drew the attention of police, who--at approximately 10:00 a.m.--sent Shabazz away, in part because of his billy club. Jackson (a certified poll watcher) was allowed to stay.[56] Upon arriving at the scene, Stephen Robert Morse, pulled out a video camera and focused on Samir Shabazz.[57] The incident gained national attention after the video was uploaded to YouTube and went viral. No complaints were filed by voters about the incident, although poll watchers witnessed some voters approach the polls and then turn away, apparently in response to the New Black Panther Party members.[58]

The Department of Justice became aware of the incident on Election Day and started an inquiry. In January 2009, less than two weeks before the Bush Administration left office, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice filed a civil suit under the Voting Rights Act against four defendants, including Shabazz.[59]

Following their decision to seek an injunction against Shabazz and to dismiss claims against the other defendants, a spokesman for the Department of Justice stated that claims were "dismissed against the other defendants based on a careful assessment of the facts and the law."[60] Questions about the validity of this explanation have served as the basis for subsequent controversy over the case, which has been investigated by the United States Commission on Civil Rights,[52] Republican members of Congress,[51] and the Department of Justice.[57]

In response to the controversy, the New Black Panther Party suspended its Philadelphia chapter and repudiated Minister King Shabazz in a posting at its website.[61]

In July 2010, seven Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy, calling for a hearing on potential "widespread politicization and possible corruption" in the Justice Department in regard to its decision to narrow the case.[51] In December 2010, the Civil Rights Commission released a report concluding that their investigations had uncovered "numerous specific examples of open hostility and opposition" within the Department of Justice to pursuing cases in which whites were victims. The report accused the Department of Justice of failing to cooperate with investigations into its reason for dropping the case.[62]


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.[63]

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."[64] 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.[65] 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."[64] The calls reached 112,000 voters in majority-African American areas.[65] In 2011, Ehrlich's campaign manager, Paul Schurick, was convicted of fraud and other charges because of the calls.[64][65] 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.[66][dead link] The Democratic candidate won by a margin of more than 10 percent.[67]

2015 early voting controversy in Maryland[edit]

In Maryland's Montgomery County, Republicans planned to move two early-voting sites from densely populated Bethesda and Burtonsville to more sparsely populated areas in Brookville and Potomac. They claimed to be aiming for more "geographic diversity"; Democrats accused them of trying to suppress the vote. The Burtonsville site had the most minority voters of all the early-voting sites in the county, while the proposed new locations were in more Republican-friendly areas with fewer minority residents.[68]

2016 presidential election[edit]

The 2016 presidential election was the first in 50 years without all the protections of the original Voting Rights Act. Fourteen states had new voting restrictions in place, including swing states such as Virginia and Wisconsin.[69][70][71][72]


In early 2016, a state judge struck down a law requiring voters to show proof of citizenship, in cases where the voter had used a national voter registration form. In May, a federal judge ordered the state of Kansas to begin registering approximately 18,000 voters whose registrations had been delayed because they had not shown proof of citizenship. Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach ordered that the voters be registered, but not for state and local elections. In July, a county judge struck down Kobach's order. Kobach has been repeatedly sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for allegedly trying to restrict voting rights in Kansas.[73][74]

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.[75] 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.[76][77] On May 15, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Appeals Court ruling.[78]

North Dakota[edit]

An ID law in North Dakota which would have disenfranchised large numbers of Native Americans was overturned in July 2016. The judge wrote, "The undisputed evidence before the Court reveals that voter fraud in North Dakota has been virtually non-existent."[74]


Since 1994, Ohio has had a policy of purging infrequent voters from the rolls. In April 2016, a lawsuit was filed, challenging this policy on the grounds that it violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA)[79] and the Help America Vote Act of 2002.[80] In June, the federal district court ruled for the plaintiffs, and entered a preliminary injunction applicable only to the November 2016 election. The preliminary injunction was upheld in September by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Had it not been upheld, thousands of voters would have been purged from the rolls just a few weeks before the election.[79]


In Wisconsin, a federal judge found that the state's restrictive voter ID law led to "real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities"; and, given that there was no evidence of widespread voter impersonation in Wisconsin, found that the law was "a cure worse than the disease." In addition to imposing strict voter ID requirements, the law cut back on early voting, required people to live in a ward for at least 28 days before voting, and prohibited emailing absentee ballots to voters.[74] A study by Priorities USA, a progressive advocacy group, estimates that strict ID laws in Wisconsin led to a significant decrease in voter turnout in 2016, with a disproportionate effect on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters.[81][82]


Election Integrity Commission and Crosscheck[edit]

In May 2017, Donald Trump established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, purportedly for the purpose of preventing voter fraud. Critics have suggested its true purpose is voter suppression. The commission was led by Kansas attorney general and Republican gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach, a staunch advocate of strict voter ID laws and a proponent of the Crosscheck system. Crosscheck is a national database designed to check for voters who are registered in more than one state by comparing names and dates of birth. Researchers at Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and Microsoft found that for every legitimate instance of double registration it finds, Crosscheck's algorithm returns approximately 200 false positives.[83] Kobach has been repeatedly sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil rights organizations for trying to restrict voting rights in Kansas.[73] On February 20, 2016, while speaking to a committee of Kansas 2nd Congressional District delegates, regarding their challenges of the proof-of-citizenship voting law he championed in 2011, Kobach said, "The ACLU and their fellow communist friends, the League of Women Voters — you can quote me on that, sued".[84]

Often, voter fraud is cited as a justification for such measures, even when the incidence of voter fraud is low. In Iowa, lawmakers passed a strict voter ID law with the potential to disenfranchise 260,000 voters. Out of 1.6 million votes cast in Iowa in 2016, there were only 10 allegations of voter fraud; none were cases of impersonation that a voter ID law could have prevented. Only one person, a Republican voter, was convicted. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, the architect of the bill, admitted, "We've not experienced widespread voter fraud in Iowa."[85]


Alabama HB 56, an anti-illegal-immigration bill co-authored by Kris Kobach and passed in 2011, required proof of citizenship to be presented by voters on Election Day.[86] Much of the law was invalidated on appeal at various levels of appeals courts or voluntarily withdrawn or reworded.[87][88][89]

In its 2014 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court of the United States allowed jurisdictions with a history of suppression of minority voters to avoid continuing to abide by federal preclearance requirements for changes in voter registration and casting of ballots. Within 24 hours of that ruling, Alabama implemented a previously-passed 2011 law requiring specific types of photo identification to be presented by voters. The state closed DMV offices in eight of ten counties which had the highest percentage black population, but only three in the ten counties with the lowest black population. In 2016, Alabama's Secretary of State (SOS) John Merrill began the process to require proof of citizenship from voters, despite Merrill saying he did not know of any cases where non-citizens had voted. Four-term Republican Representative Mo Brooks found that he himself had been purged from the rolls. Merrill also declined to publicize the passage of legislation that enabled some 60,000 Alabaman former felons to vote.[90][91] Alabama's requirement regarding proof of citizenship had been approved by federal Election Assistance Commission Director Brian Newby.[92]

In 2018, critics accused the state of intentionally disenfranchising non-white voters.[93][needs update]


In Louisville, Georgia, in October 2018, Black senior citizens were told to get off a bus that was to have taken them to a polling place for early voting. The bus trip was supposed to have been part of the "South Rising" bus tour sponsored by the advocacy group Black Voters Matter. A clerk of the local Jefferson County Commission allegedly called the intended voters' senior center to claim that the bus tour constituted "'political activity,'" which is barred at events sponsored by the county. Latosha Brown, one of the founders of Black Voters Matter, described the trip's prevention as a clear-cut case of "'voter intimidation. This is voter suppression, Southern style.'" The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sent a letter to the county calling for an "'immediate investigation'" into the incident, which it condemned as "'an unacceptable act of voter intimidation'" that "'potentially violates several laws.'"[94][needs update]

Georgia's Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, was the official in charge of determining whether or not voters will be allowed to vote in the November 2018 election and has been accused of voter suppression. Minority voters are statistically more likely to have names that contain hyphens, suffixes or other punctuation that can make it more difficult to match their name in databases, experts noted, and are more likely to have their voter applications suspended by Kemp's office. Barry C. Burden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of its Elections Research Center said, "An unrealistic rule of this sort will falsely flag many legitimate registration forms. Moreover, the evidence indicates that minority residents are more likely to be flagged than are whites." Kemp has suspended the applications of 53,000 voters, a majority of whom are minorities. "Even if everyone who is on a pending list is eventually allowed to vote, it places more hurdles in the way of those voters on the list, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic," said Charles Stewart III, Professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[95][needs update]


In 2017, Indiana passed a law allowing the state to purge voters from the rolls without notifying them, based on information from the controversial Crosscheck system. The Indiana NAACP and League of Women Voters have filed a federal lawsuit against Connie Lawson, Indiana's Secretary of State, to stop the purges.[96] In June 2018, a federal judge ruled that the law violated the National Voter Registration Act.[97]

North Dakota[edit]

In September, a federal circuit court of appeals reversed an earlier ruling that struck down a law requiring voters to have a residential street address. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case.[98][99]

Anti-suppression efforts[edit]

Starting in 2016, various states enacted laws for automatic voter registration.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


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