In the U.S., the right of adult citizens to vote and elect public officials is one of their most hallowed principles — or at least, that's what is taught in middle-school civics class. In reality, though, there's another tradition that goes back even further in American history: finding ways to keep people from voting, whether through arcane laws or open intimidation.
In some ways, voter suppression, as such efforts are called, goes back to the earliest days of the country. As historian Jill Lepore wrote in a 2008 New Yorker article, only 6 percent of the U.S. population was eligible to vote in the first presidential election in 1789. That's because most states only allowed white male landowners to vote [source: Lepore].
In the 1800s, the property requirements started to fade, and over the next century, racial minorities and women legally got the right to vote. But, local and state governments came up with a variety of ways to limit who actually got to participate in elections, whether it was requiring poll taxes, literacy tests or changing the dates and times for polling stations.
Efforts to restrict voting continue even today. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based think tank and civil rights advocacy organization, since 2010 alone, 21 states have passed new laws making it more difficult to vote.
Here are 10 ways that people have been kept from voting, both in the past and the present.
One simple way to keep people from voting is to require them to pay a tax for that right, and to make it just high enough that much of the population can't afford it. In the early 20th century, most of the former states of the Confederacy imposed such poll taxes. The amounts weren't that high by contemporary standards — Virginia charged $1.50 per year, about $11 in today's dollars, while Mississippi charged $2 (about $15 today). Even so, the taxes had to be paid in cash, which amounted to a prohibitive hardship for sharecroppers, miners and small farmers, who generally bought food, clothing and other necessities with credit, and never had more than a few spare dollars in their possession.
Additionally, in Virginia and other states, the taxes were cumulative, which meant that a prospective voter had to fork over the cash for several years in a row before being eligible to register. Other places cut down on participation by only sending out notices about the tax to property owners, or requiring voters to show up at the local sheriff's office, which served to intimidate poor people and minorities. In 1964, the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited poll taxes, but it wasn't until two years later that the last four remaining state laws were struck down in federal court [source: DeSilver].
Officials who wanted to keep blacks from voting in post-Reconstruction American South came up with another cleverly cruel trick. They imposed so-called literacy tests, which ostensibly were intended to make sure that only voters who could read and write — and thus were adequately informed — could cast ballots. Since former slaves seldom had been allowed by their owners to learn to read, the literacy tests effectively disenfranchised many of them.
The first such test was created in 1882 in South Carolina, where voters were required to fill out a ballot for each office, such as governor or senator, and then put the ballot in the correct box. The boxes were continuously shuffled, to prevent those who had learned to read from helping those hadn't yet acquired the skill [source: University of Michigan].
As more blacks became literate, though, officials came up with even more bizarre tests, such as brain-twisters designed to confuse the prospective voter. Louisiana, for example, had this question: "Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write" [source: Onion]. Some Southern states continued to use such tests up until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act made them illegal [source: Ourdocuments.gov].
In the post-Civil War South, clandestine resistance groups — the Ku Klux Klan, the White League and the Knights of the White Camelia — organized to oppose the Reconstruction governments imposed by the victorious North. They targeted both white and black officials for assassination and used violence to intimidate freed blacks from exercising their right to vote. As historian David Blight has explained, the Klan would often take black people out of their cabins in the middle of the night, and whip them or burn parts of their bodies. This was to keep them from exercising their rights, including the right to vote [source: PBS].
This violence helped the southern wing of the Democratic Party, which back then was controlled by staunch white supremacists, to suppress black voter turnout and wrest control of state and local governments from the Republican Party. Gradually, the segregationists gained control of various states, starting with Tennessee in 1869. By 1877, another 10 states had switched to the Democrats. As a National Park Service history notes, determined black voters continued to show up at the polls, but their numbers dwindled.
In response, Congress passed legislation making it a federal crime to deprive citizens of voting rights, and more than 3,000 Klan members were indicted, though only 600 were convicted by Southern juries. But even after the Klan's ugly power was reduced, the new state governments simply enacted measures such as poll taxes to accomplish the same discrimination [source: NPS].
Southern states came up with other tricks to make it difficult to register to vote. They required frequent re-registration as well as street addresses with names and numbers, which many rural African-Americans didn't have. Even when a black voter could meet those requirements, they often invented some other technicality to disqualify the voter anyway. A black janitor named Jackson Giles was brave enough to file a lawsuit challenging such practices in Alabama, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his claim in a convoluted 1903 decision [source: University of Michigan].
It wasn't just Southern Democrats who wanted to prevent people from voting. In the North and West in the late 1800s and early 1900s, officials sought to keep immigrants who were flooding into the U.S. and ethnic and religious minorities from participating in the electoral process. In California and New Jersey, for example, officials made it tougher for immigrants to vote by requiring them to present their original naturalization papers at polling places.
In other places, authorities used the clock to winnow the turnout. They closed polling places and registration offices early, so that industrial workers who commonly worked 10-hour shifts in those days wouldn't be able to make it in time. In New York, officials came up with an even more discriminatory policy to prevent participation by Jews, many of whom were socialists. They simply designated Saturdays and Yom Kippur, a high holy day, as registration times [source: Keyssar].
In recent years, voting rights advocates have complained that officials have sought to scare away some voters, by making them fear that they might be arrested and prosecuted for fraud if they tried to exercise their rights and cast ballots.
In 2004, for example, The New York Times reported that Florida state election officials sent plainclothes state troopers to the homes of at least 40 to 50 elderly black voters to question them as part of an investigation into supposed election fraud. One woman in her 70s later described in an affidavit how the officers removed their jackets to reveal that they were armed.
''These guys are using these intimidating methods to try and get these folks to stay away from the polls in the future,'' Eugene Poole, president of the Florida Voters League, told the Times. ''And you know what? It's working." A state official told the Times the troopers had been sent to the voters' homes to do the interviews, which produced no evidence of fraud, because they thought it might be "a more relaxed atmosphere " [source: Herbert].
In 2014, media outlets reported that voters in Kentucky received an official-looking mailer marked "Election Violation Notice, "which contained the warning: "You are at risk of acting on fraudulent information." The supposed fraud turned out to be campaign promises of Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who was attempting to unseat Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell. Grimes accused McConnell of trying to scare and bully voters who didn't understand that the notice was just campaign literature. She sued in an effort to gain an injunction and stop it from being distributed. But a federal judge rejected her request, and Grimes went on to lose the election [source: Brammer].
Before the 2000 presidential election, state officials in Republican-controlled Florida hired a private firm to go through the state's voter registration rolls and delete names of people who were deceased, registered in multiple places, convicted felons or declared mentally incompetent in a court proceeding. But as a subsequent investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights detailed, the hired checkers made numerous mistakes, and deleted many voters who were fully eligible.
The commission report doesn't specify how many voters were deprived of their rights unfairly, but the deleted voters disproportionately were African-Americans, who tend to vote Democrat. In the Miami area, 65 percent of those deleted were blacks, who represented just 20.4 percent of the population. Whites only made up 16.6 percent of the "purge list," even though they amounted to 77.6 percent of the public [source: USCCR].
The commission didn't find evidence that officials in Florida conspired to disenfranchise black voters [source: USCCR]. But many African-Americans didn't see it that way. "I'll never forget the people that came up to me and said, 'You let them steal our votes,'" U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat, told the Huffington Post in 2015 [source: Conroy].
Florida has one of the toughest felon voting bans in the U.S. Anyone convicted is automatically banned from voting for life, and can't be reinstated unless the governor and the state clemency board agree. As a result, more than 1.6 million Floridians — about 9 percent of the electorate — are shut out [source: Sweeney et al.].
At least 34 states now have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification, such as a driver's license or other government-issued ID, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures [source: NCSL]. Advocates of such laws promote them as necessary to prevent fraud at the polls. But critics charge that they're intended to keep young people and minorities, whom studies show are less likely to have such IDs, from voting. In some states, obtaining ID can cost as much as $60, and even in states where the cards are free, licensing offices are often in places that are difficult for people without cars to reach [source: Wilson].
The types of acceptable identification can be confusing too, or favor voters of one party over another. In Texas, for example, a handgun permit is considered acceptable identification, but a university ID card is not [source: Goodwyn].
A September 2014 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that black voter turnout in Kansas dropped by 3.7 percentage points more than white turnout after a voter ID law was passed, and that the number of 18-year-old voters dropped by 7.1 percent more than it did for voters aged 44 to 53 [source: GAO].
North Carolina, Ohio, and other states have moved in recent years to cut early voting days or hours. That's a move that the GAO's 2014 report concluded was more likely to inconvenience black voters, who tend to favor early voting in person [sources: Wilson, GAO].
Limiting the number of polling places is another tactic. Arizona's Maricopa County, the state's major population center, offered 400 locations in 2008, but reduced that by half in 2012. In 2016, the county only provided 60 polling places for voters for the presidential primary. As a result, voters had to wait in line for as long as five hours in some places [source: Christie and Van Veltzer].
It's unclear just how many voters gave up and went home without voting as a result of the logjam. But one critic, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat, said that it disproportionately affected minorities and the working poor, who have a harder time finding transportation [source: Christie and Van Veltzer].
One tried-and-true ploy for suppressing voter turnout is to trick voters into not going to the polls. In 2008, for example, unidentified hoaxers in Virginia sent out a phony State Board of Elections flyer to several neighborhoods in the Hampton Roads area, advising that Republican voters should vote on Nov. 4 but Democrats needed to wait until Nov. 5 — in reality, the day after the election — because of a new plan to ease crowding at polling places [source: Walker].
In Maryland, a robocall during the 2010 gubernatorial election told thousands of voters in African-American neighborhoods that they could "relax "and stay home that evening, because Democratic incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley already had won the election — even though, in reality, the polls had not closed.
In that case, Paul Schurick, the campaign manager for O'Malley's Republican opponent, former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. eventually was exposed as the culprit. Schurick was tried in 2011 and found guilty of four criminal charges, including election fraud and failing to include a notice that the Ehrlich campaign had authorized the calls. O'Malley won the election anyway [source: Broadwater]. Schurick was sentenced to 30 days of home detention, plus probation and community service [source: Davis].
Florida is not the only state restricting felons from voting. As many as 5.8 million Americans of voting age can't cast a ballot, because they live in states that bar anyone with a criminal record from voting, even after they have served their sentences. About 2.2 million of those disenfranchised voters are African-American, and critics of felon disenfranchisement laws say that they disproportionately hurt black turnout, since blacks are convicted and sent to prison at twice the rate of the overall U.S. population [source: Simpson].
In 2016, just two states allow prisoners to vote. Most of the rest allow them to vote after their sentence is served; after the sentence and parole time are served; or after sentence, parole and probation are up. In another 11 states, convicted felons automatically lose their rights to vote and may only get it back if the crime was not on murder or rape; by appealing to the state governor or some other variable [source: ProCon].
However, this is one vote-suppressing restriction that slowly is giving way. Over the last two decades, about two dozen states have changed their laws and enabled more people with criminal convictions to regain their rights. As a result, about 800,000 Americans are now able to vote again [source: Simpson].
Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it would elect more centrist candidates, but critics worry about the downsides. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Ways the U.S. Has Kept Citizens From Voting
This was an interesting assignment for me, because back in the 1990s, I covered politics, and wrote a couple of feature stories for George, the magazine edited by John F. Kennedy Jr.
More Great Links
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