Voter suppression remains prominent in U.S. elections

Credit: Simin Li/ Credit: Simin Li/

Title 18, section 594 of the United States Code specifically states that voter intimidation at any election in which a federal position is being determined is punishable by fine, jail, or both. This is why different groups of states have banned firearms, prohibited partisan advocacy, and, in Montana, banned the offering of alcohol or tobacco near or inside a polling place. This is also why the Democratic parties of Arizona, Ohio, Nevada, and Pennsylvania can sue the Trump campaign for advocating for voter intimidation — it is unequivocally illegal. Voter intimidation is a relatively easy to identify example of voter suppression. The other methods of voter suppression are much less clear-cut and much more legal.

Legal voter suppression is something of an American tradition. The Constitution may have been written of, by, and for the people, but until 1870 “the people” was more or less synonymous to “white men.” Eventually, of course, the 15th and 19th amendments gave the constitutional right to vote to women and people of color.

A year after enfranchising black men, in the midst of reconstruction, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, a law over 100 years old and still relevant. The Colfax Massacre, where the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) attacked and killed up to 153 lawmakers and freed African-Americans at a courthouse, sparked the bill, which authorized the prosecution of the KKK and anyone else who violated the 15th amendment. These prosecutions dropped significantly as federal troops drew out of the south at the end of Reconstruction. Voters of color continued to be subject to suppression in the form of the poll tax, the literacy test, and the danger threatened and realized against them and their families. This, along with the continued effort of the civil rights movement, lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

Half a century later, at least twenty states have passed legislation that enable voting restrictions. Fourteen of these states have passed stricter legislation since the 2012 election. This summer, Arizona passed a bill restricting mail-in ballot collection. The argument that accompanies these laws is almost always that they are there to stop the epidemic of voter fraud. The Republican nominee’s recent call to arms also follows this argument.

A study affiliated with Arizona State University found that, between 2000 and 2012 there were only 500 cases of in-person or absentee voter impersonation, or 1 in 300,000 votes. Applied to the 146,311,000 Americans registered to vote in this election, that would predict 487 instances of voter fraud. The largest actual example of voter fraud in recent history was the purging of 12 thousand names, 44 percent of which were African-American, from Floridian voter rolls due to the fact that the named matched listed felons in other states. The year was 2000, and George W. Bush won the presidency by 537 Floridian votes.
It is effectively impossible to rig the U.S. Presidential election, no matter how much voter fraud is committed. This is not due to restrictive laws, but to the fact that the election is actually, between all 50 states, their multitude of counties, and the District of Columbia, a few thousand elections. These laws have no significant effect on voter fraud, but they do have an important effect on voting. Restrictive laws calling for stricter voter identification requirements, early voting cutbacks, and registration restrictions overwhelmingly affect voters of color.

After the 2008 election, which had unprecedented turnout from people of color, the country saw the rise of voter suppression laws. A A University of Massachusetts study found that the greater the rise in minority and low-income voter turnout, the more likely a state was to pass restrictive laws. The Brennan Center for Justice found that seven of the eleven states with the highest African-American turn out and nine of the twelve states with the largest Hispanic population growth established new restrictions to voting by 2014.

This disparity of impact is important because of what happens when people vote — politicians actually listen to them. Politicians pay attention to who votes because they want to stay in power, and catering to the people who have shown that they actually vote gives them that power. Take, for example, the years following the Voting Rights Act. Unprecedented numbers of African-Americans voted and, as a result, politicians noticed, and African-American communities got public funding for their roads to be paved and their stoplights to be fixed.

The United States likes to pride itself in the pure-hearted nobility of its democratic process. This year, however, the Republican nominee has spent a lot of energy claiming that the election is rigged, and has made a number of comments calling for voter intimidation and suppression. This parallels the acts of discrimination and injustice mentioned earlier. Pennsylvania, as one of the states the Republican nominee singled out in his calls to “watch your polling booths,” has already seen and will undoubtedly see more voter intimidation until tomorrow is over.

Tomorrow, there will be people who did not vote who were eligible to. It won’t be because they didn’t want to vote, but because they couldn’t. At this moment in the United States, voting is not a right — it is a privilege.