Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Voting is the cornerstone of democracy, and voter suppression thus undermines the definition of representative democracy. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines democracy as “a government by the people,” meaning the people determine the government, yet some Americans are underrepresented in government due to voter suppression.
The Fifteenth and Nineteenth amendments were signed into law and granted voting rights to U.S. citizens no matter their race or gender. However, after these amendments were passed, literacy tests and poll taxes were put in place as blockades that made it nearly impossible for Blacks to vote in the south. This prompted Martin Luther King and other fellow activists to fight for voting rights. Ultimately, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the voting rights act of 1965 that banned literacy tests. Poll taxes were later banned on the national level in 1962 with the signing of the 24th amendment and at the state level in 1966 by the Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections Supreme Court case. Immediately, 250,000 new Black voters registered, resulting in an increase from six African Americans in Congress to 14, including one Black senator by 1971.
Sadly, in 2012, voting rights protections from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were gutted in the Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder Supreme Court case ruling. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent saying Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy had been “disserved by today’s decision.” The ruling deemed section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, meaning states previously covered no longer had to receive pre-clearance by the Attorney General to pass new voting changes.
After the ruling, Texas governor Greg Abbott stated that the Texas voter ID law that was previously blocked in 2012 would go into effect. The voter ID law would require all voters to show a photo ID to be able to vote. While voter ID laws might sound reasonable on paper, they do more harm than good in practice. Carol Anderson, the author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy, said in an interview with PBS that voter ID laws are targeted at the young, the poor, and racial and ethnic minority voters. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that pre-clearance protected minority voters from discrimination, but since section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was deemed unconstitutional, minority voters are left vulnerable to lawmakers who do not always have their best interests in mind.
Voter ID laws are ostensibly created to protect the polls from voter fraud, but rampant voter fraud doesn’t exist in reality. Out of the one billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014, only 31 votes were found to be fraudulent. “The ballot box is not under siege by voter fraud,” Anderson told Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Voter ID laws are put in place by lawmakers to suppress the votes of minorities. For example, The Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the Wisconsin Voter ID law prevented 27.5% African Americans from voting while only deterring 8.3% white registrants.
Additionally, the U.S. Court of Appeals found that lawmakers in North Carolina wrote a discriminatory voter ID law that targeted African American voters. Lawmakers know that minorities tend to vote Democratic. In the 2018 elections, 76% of non-whites did not vote Republican.
Gerrymandering is another form of voter suppression that exists today. It is the rearranging of a voting jurisdiction to give the edge to a certain political party. Its impact was clear in the 2018 House elections when Democrats received 50% of the votes nationwide but only 45% of seats in the House.
Also, at-large voting is a way votes are suppressed. It is a winner-take-all voting system where all votes go into the same pool. This prevents minorities from electing candidates of their choosing when they are outnumbered because the majority population drowns out their votes.. For example, the City of Beaufort in South Carolina uses the at-large voting system to elect members of their city council. As a result, all five city council members are white even though 35.7% of their population is not white.
As for the upcoming election, there have been allegations that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) changed policy to reduce the number of mail-in votes when Postmaster General Louis DeJoy ordered the removal of 671 sorting machines. These machines are capable of sorting 21.4 million pieces of paper an hour. After great outcry, the USPS has since pulled back on these changes, but not before voters in 46 states were warned of the possibility that their mail-in ballots could be delayed.
The upcoming presidential election is crucial, especially in the polarized political climate. Voting is one of the main ways in which citizens participate in democracy. However, voter ID laws, at-large voting, and gerrymandering are eroding the right of citizens to representative democracy. Legislation should be written to make it easier for citizens to vote.