The Causes and Symptoms of Voter Suppression

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This off-year election day, citizens of Kentucky and Mississippi will choose governors, while in big cities, including PhiladelphiaHouston and San Francisco, they’ll select mayors and other local representatives. But as voters head to the polls in a slew of important local races, municipalities must consider the impact of voter roll purges, voter I.D. requirements, and poll shutdowns on residents of color.

Voting in local elections allows residents to cast votes for important local issues such as special ballot referendums, school boards, city councils, and mayors. Although voting is a right believed to be afforded to all citizens, it is important for cities and towns to vigilantly protect it.

As concerns rise over voter suppression across the country, local leaders are responsible for answering an important question: How do voter roll purges, voter I.D. requirements and poll shutdowns disproportionately affect residents of color?

Voter suppression tactics have a 150-year history. The U.S. has a long and storied history with voting rights. Prior to the 15th amendment, only white men could vote. Women, African Americans, Native-Americans and Asian-Americans would continue to face decades of challenges as they sought the right to vote.

The 15th (1878) and 19th (1920) amendments to the constitution brought voting rights to African American men and women. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 and the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 would grant citizenship and voting rights to Native people and Asian-Americans, respectively. However, even with these victories, voter suppression tactics including poll taxes, literacy tests and pure intimidation persisted for several years for residents of color, especially those in southern states. Then the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that prevented residents of color from voting and the road to voting rights would culminate with this landmark legislation.

However, there are recent instances nationwide that reveal how voter suppression tactics continue to negatively affect voter participation for residents of color.

Voter roll purges—a practice in which states routinely review voter registration rolls and remove people who are either deceased or have moved—have now become more aggressive in states such as Georgia, which removed over 300,000 voters who have not voted in previous elections or failed to respond to mailed notices from the state.

To be clear, these purges most often occur in communities where residents of color make up a large part of the voting population, and significantly less often in communities with mostly white voters—voter purges are not seen as good faith efforts to improve efficiencies. Rather they are indicative as punitive responses to low past voter engagement.  This low past voter engagement is often a result of effective and historical voter suppression and makes it a self-reinforcing cycle.

Voting rights advocates described the latest purge as troubling, and see the efforts as targeting young, residents of color who are often disproportionately hit by the removals.

Voter I.D. laws require residents to provide photo identification at the polls. These laws have been found to deny thousands of residents of color their right to vote.

One study found that Black voters constituted 11.4 percent of those voting in Texas in 2016 with I.D., but 16.1 percent of those voting without I.D. Likewise, Latino voters made up 19.8 percent of those voting with an I.D., but 20.7 percent of those voting without. This shows evidence of a disparate racial impact.

In North Carolina, the state board of elections is working with city/county management associations and municipal leagues to ensure that local governments are aware of acceptable forms of identification ahead of next year’s election day. The state’s new voter ID law requires the State Board to confirm that an institution’s identification card meets certain requirements before it can be used to vote.

Additionally, another study highlights a rise in the shutdown of poll locations after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that removed the previous requirement for states with histories of voter discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing voter laws or practices. Voting rights advocates have argued that such tactics make it easier to disenfranchise voters of color.

Along with exclusions of felons and permanent resident immigrants—populations which have been shown to be disproportionately residents of color—municipalities must remain aware of the potential implications of voter suppression practices and how they limit voter participation for all.

For online resources to strengthen your knowledge and capacity to eliminate racial disparities and build more equitable communities, visit NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) department.

About the Author: Katherine Carter is a senior associate for NLC REAL.